After over a century of horror cinema, there’s very little a film can do to shock the avid viewer. Even the goriest demise or most bizarre plot twist has roots elsewhere in the genre, and to depict something truly fresh (or rotten, as it were), a film must push to dazzling depths of depravity. We Are the Flesh, the debut feature from writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter, is notable mostly for its efforts in this regard; its horrific, aberrant elements are depicted in incredibly graphic detail. The film, which screens tonight at Fantasia Festival, is a curiosity for audiences searching for the next notorious bit of shock cinema, but the film’s decision to function in almost entirely symbolic terms limit its creative appeal and success.
Almost the entire film is set in a dilapidated apartment, one of the last secure places in a post-apocalyptic Mexico City, whose sole occupant is a nameless, sinister Man (Noé Hernández). The Man’s quiet existence is split between methodically finding ways to survive and gleefully destroying his possessions – until a Brother (Diego Gamaliel) and Sister (María Evoli) wander into his abode. The Man delights in his new companions, quickly exerting his insidious influence on them and forcing them to confront their darkest temptations in the process.
From its first moments, We Are the Flesh falls into an unsettling rhythm, initially driven by Hernández’s maniacally charismatic performance and Minter’s sparse but focused storytelling. Minter smartly sketches the ruined world outside the apartment; production designer Manuela Garcia does impeccable work, evoking the apocalypse with the detailed disarray of the apartment, and cinematographer Yollótl Alvarado uses pallid shades of yellow to communicate the decaying staleness of the characters’ existence before skillfully expanding his color palette in the film’s back half. Meanwhile, the slickness that Minter showed as the cinematographer of 2011’s memorable crime drama Miss Bala is replaced with an unflinching eye for both the mundane details of the Man’s life and the grotesqueries he eventually conjures.
Once the siblings arrive, the Man coerces them into turning his squalid apartment into a metaphorical womb with massive amounts of packing tape, a decision that marks We Are the Flesh’s descent into obscure grand guignol. Hernández is hugely effective here, unnerving and persuasive as the Man pushes the siblings deeper into depravity, and Diego Gamaliel and María Evoli do a nice job showing how helpless they are against the Man’s tremendous willpower. Around the halfway mark, things reach a shockingly graphic peak in a run of scenes so explicit and disturbing that the second half of the film is never able to get out from under their shadow. Instead, Minter chases his most bizarre compulsions, losing track of his story in favor of shifting aspect ratios and prolonged close-ups of genitalia.
The characters, thin as they are, undergo a mostly symbolic journey in the film’s back half; Minter milks his chosen themes of rebirth through cannibalism and sex, and the ties between lust and bloodlust for all they’re worth, but the narrative veers between abrupt and nonsensical. There are a handful of memorable nuggets, particularly a disturbing sequence where the characters abduct a man and force him to come to terms with his death before graphically executing him, but they are far outnumbered by We Are the Flesh’s many baffling moments.
We Are the Flesh is confounding on a level that most films can’t even begin to achieve, and it almost seems unfair to judge it by any traditional metric. Aside from the riveting Noé Hernández, the performances are mostly inscrutable, and Emiliano Rocha Minter is so focused on his bizarre metaphors that the characters and story take no real shape. Horror fans eager to see something truly bizarre won’t be disappointed with this film’s grotesqueries, but even if We Are the Flesh’s extreme sexuality and violence are enough to land it a place among horror’s twisted hall of fame, Minter’s debut feature feels more like a pursuit of notoriety than a compelling personal expression.
We Are the Flesh screens again on July 26th at Fantasia Festival.