Thursday, 30 January 2014

It Is What It Is

(Hmm. Post 1800, apparently. How lovely.)

I saw We Are What We Are (or Somos Lo Que Hay, to use its original title) on Sunday night, after a long and exhausting day of brain chemistry issues.  I mention this purely by way of pointing out that if I'd realised what it was about in real-time, rather than the following morning, I think Id have enjoyed it more than I did.

Which isn't to say I thought it sucked, even through my late-ish-night hazy malaise. It looked utterly beautiful - I really at this point be getting sick of films using muted filters as a mood-setting trick, but damn if I don't fall for it every time.  The performances were solid enough; nothing flashy, but then flash wasn't what was needed.  And the sort of slow, mournful tone contrasted well with the occasional moments of gore in a way contemporary filmakers are getting pretty good at.

At the same time, though, it was fairly minimalist plot-wise. Which I suppose is entirely reasonable when one's goal is a character study of a family in turmoil, but aside from the practical problem of the family never quite seeming to gel (a distinct issue from each individual actor doing well), the issue here is that the slow-burn approach gives the audience too much time to realise that they don't have any idea why this family is acting the way in the way it is.  A cannibalistic ritual must be performed in the next day or two, or they're all dead, apparently.  The men do the catching, the women run the ceremony, and that has important social connotations we never get a grip on. It's not that I require everything in my horror films be spelled out, to be clear, it's that if I can't understand why characters are interacting in the way they are, it's difficult for me to buy fully into what is going on.

So went my thinking as I stumbled upstairs in the closing minutes of Sunday night.  By Monday lunchtime, I'd fully grasped how stupid I was being.

Roughly (very, very roughly) speaking, there are three types of unresolved mystery in film.  There's the accidental omission (something thrown up by a script issue or an injudicious edit; the vanishing replicant in Bladerunner, for example), the mystery left unresolved deliberately because it doesn't really matter (shorthanded as MacGuffins, of course), and the mystery that has to remain unexplained because the structure of the film would be harmed by its solution.

I spent Sunday night assuming We Are... was operating under the second definition, and wondering whether it was really getting away with it. Only later did I realise it was in the third category.  Not knowing why the family needs to eat human flesh or perform unexplained rituals is central to what the film is doing.

(Spoilers below the fold)

Consider who these people are.  A tightly-knit and secretive group who consume the body and blood of other human beings in obscure rituals, who both hate and lecture prostitutes and homosexuals, have a rigid gender hierarchy, and who hypocritically insist the family unit is critical despite the obvious tensions created by an unfaithful husband and a gay son.

This is the worst instincts of the Catholic Church, severed from the religious context every person from a Christian country (nominal or otherwise) has been aware of their entire lives.  The idea is to cut away the centuries of tradition and context and simply present Catholicism as a new religion in all its strangeness.

Before I get into trouble from my Catholic readers, I should be clear.  I am not suggesting my description above is representative of the one billion or so members of the Catholic Church across the world.  This is a broadside at a very specific subgroup within the Church, those who are convinced that the job of a society founded on teachings of love and tolerance should be passing judgement on the sex lives of as many people as possible, all whilst covering up the most heinous crimes of their own. 

In other words, this is an attack against the Church's highest mortal authorities - an attack which I presume would be far more obvious in a Catholic country like Mexico, which perhaps explains why my tired Protestant-raised synapses took so long to fire. Once it hits you, though, it's obvious.  It can be no coincidence that the unnamed family of the film chew up and discard the weakest and least important members of society.  The fact that the first choice of the newly-promoted Alfredo and Julian is to assault a young boy isn't subtle, or anything. And when the matriarch deliberately endangers the family just so she can deliver a lecture to the local whores about how they're awful and need to stay away from her sons, it's unmistakable.  This is a family for whom ritual and self-righteousness have become so important the actual day-to-day business of living right has receded entirely.  For whom protecting each other from the consequences of their crimes is vastly more important than the idea of, you know, just not being criminals.

This is what makes the ending of the film so sad. Yes, Alfredo's (presumably) first attempt to find love goes wrong when he finds himself compelled to offer the teenager he's kissed as a new offering (only to here his cannibalistic brother announce "I'm not eating a poof!", homosexuality seeming to be about the worst crime a man can commit according to pre-Francis Vatican outpourings), which is pretty depressing, but the real gut-punch comes when the cops attack the house, Alfredo realises the only way to save his sister is to attack her and so trick the cops into thinking her a victim, and Julian misunderstands and shoots him in the head.  The family has become so unstuck from comprehensible behaviour that Alfredo doesn't think to explain his plan to save his sister, and Julian immediately sees his act of selflessness as an attack to be repelled. Worse still, whilst Alfredo's idea works and Sabina is taken to hospital rather than jail, the instant she is well enough to walk she leaves the hospital to find someone new to eat. Alfredo's sacrifice has bought nothing but the chance for the same nightmare to repeat itself.

Sensible people can disagree on whether a meandering film of understated, foggy weirdness is actually preferable to a horribly depressing meditation on the state of international Catholicism, I guess.  I know which side I'm on, though.  We Are Who We Are is a sorrowful, hopeless film in which no-one comes out looking good (the cops are lazy and greedy, the whores have themselves a special gift for visiting businessmen which isn't something you want to linger on too long), but the world needs more studies on how institutional power corrupts no matter how noble the bedrock principles might be, even - or perhaps especially - when they are as oblique as this.

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