Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mexico bites: Jorge Michel Grau's WE ARE WHAT WE ARE opens in theaters and VOD

To some of us, the title WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (Somos lo que hay) will sound like a group version, a les Cagelles, of a certain song from a too-oft revived Broadway musical. Well, it ain't, Blanche. What it is is a new movie from Mexico, land of seismic societal divisions, in which kidnapping is simply a way to bring us together -- money-wise, at least. Kidnapping has its place in this film from gruelingly gifted writer-director Jorge Michel Grau (his first full-length), but it is merely the beginning of the suffering of which the victims here partake. (And I am including as victims, even the family of aggressors.)

Though the film is first and foremost a genre piece -- whipping together horror, thriller, slasher and suspense motifs into a successful mix --  what gives it true weight and importance is the fact that it also succeeds on two other, deeper levels. Most of all, oddly enough, this film is a family saga redux: the family dynamics that play out against this backdrop of horror are genuinely fascinating. Secondly, We Are What We Are functions as a critique of Mexican society, top to bottom, left to right, cops to criminals, morality to religion. It's all here, and it's all pretty awful.

From his visual knockout of an opening (quiet, but no less a knockout), Señor Grau (shown at left) -- whose full name would seem to have a little Spanish, French and German in it -- keeps us guessing as to what is going on, what this means to the family at hand -- and most importantly, why. Our helpful reviewers will have given away all of this by now (certainly by tomorrow, when the film opens) so try not to read much about the movie, if you plan to see it, for the element of surprise, and how the filmmaker dishes this out in small doses, is keenly felt. I recommend that you do see the film -- if you don't mind some truly grueling moments and as dark a look at Latin America as cinema has yet unfurled. Regarding the blood and gore, it's there, all right -- but considering what might have been (and certainly would be in any American remake), we're getting off easy.

The film works just fine as a fright fest of horror, but what gives it its weight and class is how, at the same time as it's scaring us silly, it's providing a look at one of the screen's most bizarre families: a father (Humberto Yáñez) whose whoring has left poor mom (Carmen Beato) bereft and taking her anger out on her kids; two sons always in competition, the younger (the late Alan Chávez, above, right) hot and horny, the older (Francisco Barreiro, above, left) weak and unprepared to take the reins when called upon; and a beautiful adolescent daughter (Paulina Gaitan, above, center, from Sin Nombre), whose character is still forming.

Señor Grau draws excellent performances from his entire cast, including two detectives in whom corruption, ambition and incompetence vie for pride of place. Further, he uses tropes such the mother and the whore, and the virgin on the cusp in ways that are truly different from what we've seen.  In particular the relationship between mom and a group of local whores is both shocking and compelling. The filmmaker is aces in the visual department, too. Note the scene, above, in which our two brothers go hunting.

The filmmaker, it seems, has a day job: He's a professor at the Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica (CCC), as well as an advisor of thesis projects. He also teaches Film Production at the Extracurricular Program at the Political and Social Sciences Faculty of the National Autonomous University (UNAM), as well as Film Direction at KMZ Workshops. This pretty much puts to rest the old saw that "those who can, do; those who can't, teach."

In a note of particularly dark irony, given that this movie eviscerates Mexico so thoroughly, one of the film's leading men, young actor Alan Chávez, was killed soon after the film was finished. According to the IMDB, at only 18 years of age, with ten film credits behind him and a whole career in front of him, Chávez and some friends exchanged gunfire during an argument (oh, those hot-headed Latin actors!). While fleeing from police responding to the incident, more gunfire ensued, and the actor was mortally wounded. We seem to be approaching ever closer to the apocalyptic state of affairs described in one of The Onion's most hilarious articles from last year. Ah, Mexico -- buena suerte!

From IFC Films, We Are What We Are opens tomorrow, Friday, February 18, in New York City at the IFC Center, then comes to VOD the following Wednesday, February 23.


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