Emiliano Rocha Minter's transgressive first feature We Are The Flesh arrives in America this week courtesy of the cult cinema connoisseurs at Arrow Video, after months of frightened, word-of-mouth whispers. The buzz was that this Mexican indie would be something intense, something extreme, and something different, but what was most different about it was that the buzz wasn't just happening among the extreme-transgressive-horror crowd, but among respected auteurs like Alejandro González Ináritu and Alfonso Cuarón. This immediately piqued my interest. Often I look at horror films that dub themselves “transgressive” with quite a bit of skepticism that easily turns into disdain. Too often they end up being exercises in gratuitous shock for the sake of gratuitous shock, which simply want to be extreme and push buttons for no deeper reason than wanting to make people squirm; the illegitimate children of stuff like Cannibal Holocaust, which I consider the most repugnant offender of this. It's a shame, because when a film is transgressive in service of well-thought-out, artistically-strong thematic reasons that are not just gratuitous, the results can be something transformative and unique – see the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ken Russell, and Peter Greenaway for the ultimate examples of this – but that possibility seems to be very rarely realized. With high praise coming from the likes of Ináritu and Cuarón, could We Are The Flesh be that rare sort of film that is actually transgressive in the service of artistically-important, deeper reasons? I had to find out. The answer? I think it is. Minter's film is about as extreme and disturbing as I had expected, but it seems to be that way not just because it delights in extremity (although to be sure, it does), but because it wants to get at a deeper, existential truth about the cruelty of humanity, and possibly the cruelty devouring people in the filmmaker's home country of Mexico in particular. While I cannot put it in the same league as the masterworks of Russell, Jodorowsky, and Greenaway (but then again, very few films are in that league), it is a fascinating and hypnotic film in its own right; a philosophically bleak fever-dream with shades of Jodorowsky, Georges Bataille, the Marquis de Sade, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Now that that list of influences has either piqued your curiosity or caused you to start slowly backing away in horror, let's take a closer look at what's beneath Minter's Flesh. It follows two late-teen/early-twentysomething siblings living in what appears to be the crumbling shell of a post-apocalyptic, apparently deserted Mexican city. They stumble upon the lair of a very weird and creepy stranger, and strike a deal with him: they can live with him and eat his food, if they help him in the construction of the bizarre man-made cave he is building, and join him in the unrestrained indulgences and depravities he intends to carry out there. What follows from that set-up is less a narrative in the conventional sense, and more a surreal nightmare with an unhinged internal logic even more mad than the crumbled society that the two siblings have apparently fled from. The whole thing feels like a twisted metaphor, with the three principle actors appearing perhaps as concepts or philosophical representations rather than characters in the narrative sense, and with the space of the film becoming increasingly less a real place and more an internal state externalized. The cave the characters create changes the set from a building in a crumbled city to a representation of perhaps the cavern of a skull or perhaps a womb, but either way a place within the equally-in-shambles body of the mad stranger. This host of the den of depravity, Mariano, is an embodiment of both hedonism and nihilism; a combination of Marquis de Sade, Aleister Crowley, and Coffin Joe (from the series of notorious Brazilian cult films), who snarls quasi-Nietzschean philosophy through a sick grin and wild eyes. Of the two siblings, the brother seems to symbolize innocence and/or repression, and the sister seems to symbolize curiosity, longing, and uninhibited sexuality, but all of those attributes are things that Mariano delights in being able to get his claws in and corrupt.
This is a film about the darkest impulses that humans are capable of, exposed at their most raw by immersing its characters in the abyss that Mariano creates, and letting it consume them; by turning them into (as the title suggests) mere flesh in a nihilistic void. As one would imagine, this journey takes the film to some very dark and very twisted places, involving brutal violence and explicit, unsimulated sex. It is a very boundary-pushing movie, in a way that plenty of viewers just won't be ready for; not just because of the literal content involved (although plenty will find that shocking in itself), but because of the powerfully nihilistic feeling that the content is used to create. This is one grim movie: watching it evoked a similar feeling to when I saw E. Elias Merhige's Begotten for the first time, and I was left nearly as haunted afterward. It's the sort of film that I'm not sure one really enjoys per se, but that one experiences, for better or for worse. But while I'm not sure I enjoyed it, I'm glad I saw it, because I felt that it passed the strict test that I always hold a project like this to: is it shocking me just to shock, or is it shocking me to make me feel something, or think about something?
This does not feel like a movie that is pushing buttons just to push them; the disturbing content is there for a reason, and it does not exist in a vacuum, but in the context of Mariano's nihilistic musings, and in the context of how the two siblings are transformed by the transgressions they go through. In a general sense, we see humanity stripped away of all morality and societal politeness, and reduced to whatever darkness might exist at its core; an existential horror tale with the dark underbelly of human nature as the monster. But in a specific sense, there is a very strong feeling that Minter is commenting on the state of violence, cruelty, and corruption in Mexican society. It is no accident that he has very clearly set this in a nightmare version of his home country, and one gets the impression that what we see in the cave is a microcosm of what he fears is happening to the society around him. Equally deliberate, and equally developed with an eye for more than just gratuitousness, is the film's aesthetic. This is a very well-shot movie, with a striking, dream-like color palette, and haunting cinematography that occasionally plays with the aspect ratio for dramatic effect. The bizarre set is also extremely well-designed, and the fact that we see it in large part built by the characters on-screen adds an unusual diegetic twist to the deliberately artificial art style.
Still, especially for a first feature, there is something undeniably spellbinding about the nightmarish world of We Are The Flesh. Yes it is flawed, but those who appreciate films like this will find plenty worth puzzling over, and the dark artistry of Minter's visuals are worth a look in themselves. Of course, it should be abundantly clear by now that this is not a movie for everyone; plenty of people will find this film too extreme (or just too pervasively dark) for their tastes. But for those who are up for it, I found We Are The Flesh to be a mostly-successful example of a transgressive film whose transgressions are thematically and artistically justified enough to be worth the journey.
- Christopher S. Jordan
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