Things are tough all over in the Mexico City of We Are What We Are, the striking debut feature from Jorge Michel Grau. Well, not all over. The shoppers at the upscale mall in the film’s opening must be doing well enough to insulate themselves from the rough economy and the degradations familiar to those it batters. They look on in disgust when a lurching, rag-clad man collapses and dies while gesturing at a mannequin behind a shop window as if it were the last unattainable object of desire in a life filled with them. He doesn’t get much of a chance to trouble the shoppers with his passing, however. A cleaning crew unceremoniously sweeps his corpse away before it even has a chance to cool.
His death affects others much more profoundly, however. He leaves behind a shrill wife (Carmen Beato) and three teenage children: a hot-tempered, violence-prone son (Alan Chávez), his more sensitive brother (Francisco Barreiro), and their pragmatic sister (Paulina Gaitán). They’re unsure how they’ll scrape together a living with their modest income repairing watches at a market. And they’re desperate to solve another problem: how to keep “the ritual” going, and where to find the human flesh they need to consume as part of it.
Mixing social commentary and black humor with copious amounts of blood and cracking bones, We Are What We Are offers a cannibal’s-eye view of Mexico City’s seamier side, as the three teens try to figure out the best way to keep the flesh coming in without attracting too much attention. Street kids prove too slippery, Beato deems prostitutes too unclean, and cruising gay clubs causes Barreiro to ask some new questions about his own identity.
No one, however, questions the need to eat human flesh. Though We Are What We Are offers no details about the ritual, it suggests an ancient practice that’s kept a subterranean existence into the 21st century, one that might even fit better into the 21st century than in the recent past. Grau uses cool colors and an understated style to offset the violence and the grime, but after the opening scene at the mall, the film seldom visits another location that even approaches sanitary. A subplot involving cops perpetually on the verge of discovering the flesh-eaters slows down the film’s momentum, but also offers a chance for a key line, which a cop tosses off nonchalantly after seeing a finger pulled from a human stomach: “So many people eat others in this city.”
Grau effectively mixes wry, bloody, deadpan gags, family drama, and stomach-churning violence. One moment, Barreiro, Gaitán, and Chávez try to sort out their new family dynamic; the next, they’re trying to deal with a shovel-battered corpse that may or may not be of high enough quality to eat. It’s just another day in one of the world’s dark places, one avoided by those who can afford to stay away, but drawing closer every day.