The Unburied (El cadáver insepulto) (2021)

The Unburied had its European première at FrightFest 2021

Writer/director Alejandro Cohen Arazi’s The Unburied (El cadáver insepulto) is the story of a prodigal son’s return. In Buenos Aires, Dr Maximiliano Espósito (Demián Salomón) has just had his book Tribal Education published, outlining the peculiar codes and traditions elaborated by boys who have grown up in orphanages or reformatories, outside of a ‘normal’ family structure. ‘Maxi’ knows of what he speaks – for he too spent his childhood in foster care with other boys. When one of those ‘brothers’, Héctor (Héctor Alba), contacts him to reveal that their ‘father’ Aldo (Pablo Palacio) has just died, Maxi is drawn back for the first time in 25 years to his former home out in the rural sticks, not so much to pay his respects to Aldo as to claim his part of an inheritance that he hopes will clear his debts in the city.

Of course, as a psychiatrist, Maxi would be all too aware that an inheritance need not be merely economic. For no matter how much effort Maxi has invested into distancing himself from his past, it still haunts him, revisiting in hallucinatory, traumatic flashbacks for which, even as an adult, he must regularly pop pills. As Maxi reconnects with his fellow orphans – all male, and all, like Maxi himself, bearing the surname of their foster father – he stands out as one of the few that got away, while the others have become pillars of the community where Aldo raised them. Juan Manuel (Fernando Miasnik) is editor-in-chief of the town’s newspaper, Oscar (Sergio Dioguardi) is sheriff with the local police, Javier (Sebastián Mogordoy) is the town’s priest, while Héctor, still living in Aldo’s home, manages the lucrative family business. 

“You’re crazy!” Maxi will later tell Héctor, “We’re all crazy!” Indeed, like Maxi, all these men are damaged by an upbringing that included animal killing, forced whoring and worse – but unlike Maxi, not one of them finds anything peculiar in the fact that Aldo is still sat, slowly rotting, at the dinner table where he choked to death on a mouthful of steak some days ago. Until they have all addressed some family business to do with the inheritance, the patriarch will remain unburied – as will Maxi’s impressionistic if increasingly vivid memories of a terrifying bloody ritual that Aldo tried to impose on him as a boy (Juan Pablo Cestaro).

As well as once being an orphanage, Aldo’s property is a working ranch, and the Espósito fortune which has supported all these men’s lives is based in the rearing and butchering of cattle. It is a profession which immediately brings to mind the all-male clan of butchers from Tobe Hooper’s classic horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – an impression only enhanced when Héctor, showing Maxi around the slaughterhouse, describes the shift from hand-wielded hammers to pneumatic bolt pistols for killing the cows. Yet far from being a frustrated, laid-off slaughterman, Héctor is running a successful enterprise and has embraced technological change. The association with Hooper, though, introduces a tension to the film, as does the constant presence of meat, and a creeping sense of entrapment. Here, everyone wants the briefly returned Maxi to stay for good – even his childhood flame Anita (Carolina Marcovsky), who imagines a permanent future together with Maxi in the town as quickly as she jumps into bed with him (not even flinching at the rough violence of Maxi’s sexual method). 

As Héctor and Maxi vie in different ways (chess, hunting, etc.) to determine which of them is Aldo’s worthiest heir, there is the sense that everyone, including Maxi (for all his denial), knows exactly where things are headed, indeed must head, in a cyclical rite passed down from adoptive father to adoptive son(s). In the end, Maxi enacts what he researches – an aberrant tribal tradition that preserves and perpetuates the forms of patriarchy in the absence of an inherited bloodline. For ultimately The Unburied is an unnerving, paranoid study of legacy’s nature and nurture – and if these boys have turned out to be as appetitive and abusive as their father, then they, no less than he, are products of an environment which they can never truly escape or repress. Meanwhile, this family’s strange ways serve to parody the broader workings of a society ruled by labour, the media, the law, religion – and the father. 

strap: In Alejandro Cohen Arazi’s grotesque family film, adult orphans assemble for a ritual at the death of their patriarch

© Anton Bitel