We Are The Flesh (2016)

First published by Sight & Sound, December 2016

Review:  “Solitude”, declares Mariano (Noé Hernández), “drags you, forces you to come face to face with your darkest fantasies – and when nothing happens, you stop being afraid of your most grotesque thoughts.” Normally this bearded 47-year-old hermit enjoys complete solitude. In a dilapidated building, Mariano’s only connection with the outside world is an umbilicus-like dumb waiter through which he trades alcohol that he has himself distilled for food. In the dark, with the help of hallucinogens administered from a dropper, he conjures the presence of his late mother.

Yet when teenaged siblings Fauna (María Evoli) and Lucio (Diego Gamaliel) break into Mariano’s domain, they find themselves recruited to, and corrupted by, the older man’s peculiar drives. First, for bed and board, they help him reconstruct the building’s interiors into a womb-like set, and then, under the influence of Mariano’s seductive authority and drugs, they act out various transgressions – sexual, spiritual, moral – that reveal Mexico’s hidden psyche.

Emiliano Rocha Minter’s feature debut We Are The Flesh (Tenemos La Carne) is a film of inversions. Suffocating internal spaces are used to stage (in negative) the tensions of the nation beyond these closed doors – a “rotten society” whose repressive ideological matrices (religious, military, patriarchal) are here perverted and travestied, profaned and feminised. The film plays as a parade of outrageous acts – incest, necrophilia, murder, rape, orgies, cannibalism – but the impact of their shock is mitigated and distanced by lysergic stylisations (colour-coded lighting and filters, ‘3D’ effects, spinning camerawork) and repeated ruptures to the narrative logic, all in a uterine space where the irrational triumphs and even death knows no bounds. At the centre of this confusing cavalcade of licentious performances and miraculous resurrections, Mariano himself cuts a mercurial figure – all at once Satanic tempter, Hitlerian tyrant, Manson-esque cultist, rakish libertine, slick showman and renate Christ. Meanwhile, prudish, virginal Lucio turns out to be a fallen angel (expressly dubbed ‘Lucifer’ at one point), and is initiated by the paterfamilias into infernal rites of passage: his adolescent metamorphosis into a Mariano-in-the-making, and his eventual, blinking reemergence into the sunlit world beyond, seen by him, as well as by us, as if for the first time.

Though hermetic, We Are The Flesh has not been made in a vacuum. When Fauna, on her knees and graphically fellating her brother, imagines that he is the middle-aged Mariano instead, we witness a reprise of the image that scandalously opened and closed Carlos Reygadas’ Battle In Heaven (Batalla en el cielo, 2005). Likewise, the group’s anthropophagous rituals evoke the clan of marginalised cannibals in Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay, 2010), while the transference of perversions from one generation to the next recalls the carnivalesque inheritance of the protagonist in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989)  Like those three films, We Are The Flesh is exploring contradictions in Mexico’s body politic – while leaving us all alone in the dark with our thoughts about what monsters it has engendered.

Synopsis: Bearded, scruffy Mariano lives alone in a building, distilling alcohol which he trades for food via a dumb waiter, and hallucinating in his downtime on narcotics from a dropper. When homeless teenaged siblings Fauna and Lucio break in, Mariano offers food and lodgings in exchange for their labour. As the three reconstruct the building’s interior to resemble the womb to which Mariano longs to return, Mariano quickly wins over Fauna, although his lewdness repels Lucio. When Lucio steals Mariano’s dropper, Mariano poisons Fauna and provides the antidote only after vegetarian Lucio has eaten a steak and returned the dropper.

Later, in the completed uterine set, Mariano persuades Fauna and the reluctant, virginal Lucio to have sex. Mariano declares himself “the last of the romantics”, ejaculates over the siblings, and collapses dead. Confused, guilty and frustrated, Lucio resorts to masturbation, while Fauna rubs herself against Mariano’s corpse. Mariano is reborn as a slick, beardless showman. With Fauna’s help, he abducts a randomly selected soldier whose throat he cuts over a bucket. Mariano then distils alcohol from the soldier’s blood and gore. By now, Lucio is being fed hallucinogens and blood. Fauna brings a young woman in, gives her drugs, and rapes her. Lucio joins in. Now a group of people holds an orgy inside the ‘womb’ to celebrate Mariano’s birthday, and at Mariano’s request, they feast on his blood and flesh. Lucio, now bearded and wearing a dress, staggers out of the building into the streets of modern Mexico.

© Anton Bitel