A middle-aged, bearded man dressed in a shabby suit staggers into an upmarket mall, leers hungrily at the bikinied mannequins in a shop window, before doubling over into a pool of his own bile and dying right there on the ground. This was Papa (Humberto Yáñez), watch repairman, whoremonger and provider for his wife and three adolescent children. If his shuffling gait seemed at first to mark him as a zombie, it will turn out that he was indeed a monster, if of a somewhat different kind – and no less monstrous is the brisk efficiency, casually observed from above by DP Santiago Sanchez’s camera, with which the mall’s cleaning staff removes all evidence of Papa’s presence, so that the bourgeois consumerism can continue, untainted by any reminders of poverty or mortality.
“Are we going to continue?” asks Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro), after news of Papa’s death has come. With the father gone and no food left in the fridges, all the simmering dysfunction of his clan is coming to the surface to threaten its fragile cohesion. Tradition dictates that Alfredo, as the elder son, should now become head of the house – but although he is, as his sister Sabina (Paulina Gaitan) puts it, “the most well-balanced one in the family”, he is also sensitive and closeted, and seemingly ill-suited to putting meat on the table.
Younger brother Julián (Alan Chavez), on the other hand, is “clumsy and violent”, while their mother Patricia (Carmen Beato) is unstable, inflexible in her adherence to a self-imposed moral code and prone to outbursts of anger. Indeed, both boys are a little afraid of her. Sabina herself is tougher, shrewder and more determined than the rest of them, but she is also well-versed enough in the conventions and practises that have kept the family alive for so long to know that the dead patriarch’s successor cannot be a woman.
Over the course of the next few days, this family will reluctantly begin treading the old stamping grounds of their flawed Papa, and taking on his work. Their object is little more than to survive as a family and to “keep the ritual going”, although they will also introduce some innovations to this ritual to reflect their own illicit desires, at last unleashed by Papa’s passing.
“We’re monsters,” Patricia will blankly declare at one point while out driving with Julián and Sabina – and there is the mutilated corpse of a prostitute in the car’s boot to underline her point – but in Jorge Michel Grau’s artfully aloof anatomisation of a dog-eat-dog society, everyone seems to be ruled by carnality and predation. Vulnerable street children and prostitutes run in packs for safety, and exact terrible vengeance upon those who cross them. The investigation of police detective Owen (Jorge Zárate) is motivated less by any sense of justice than by his desire for personal fame and financial reward, and he does not hesitate to agree to some extra-judicial killing in return for ‘a tasty little morsel’. Even on the dance floor of a gay nightclub, “there are a lot of hunters and they all want to eat you up”. Here, the family’s atrocities, dressed up in the superstitious guise of ritual, merely mirror the harsh realities of the corrupted world around them.
Like Let The Right One In (although in a rather different subgenre), We Are What We Are deploys some well-defined horror tropes to dramatise much broader humanistic concerns about survival, continuity and love – and, also like Tomas Alfredson’s film, it is a tale told in stately long shots, presenting its scenes of both domestic banality and bloody outrage in the same cold, indifferent light. If the film’s matter-of-fact title invites us not to judge its characters for their monstrously human conduct, its use of the first personal plural serves further to implicate us all in their Darwinian enterprise. We may be what we are, after all, but we are also what we eat.