“You are nothing but rotting meat,” the grinning hermit declares from deep within the bowels of the cavernous hideout he’s made for himself in post-apocalyptic Mexico. His name is Mariano (“Miss Bala” star Noé Hernandez), his face is twisted into a demonic gnarl of primitive desire, and he’s ready to prove his point with depravities so vile they make Gaspar Noé and the rest of the world’s reigning shock auteurs look prudish by comparison.
Unfolding like a Nuevo Cine Mexicano response to “Saló,” Emiliano Rocha Minter’s “We Are the Flesh” takes the defining tropes of his country’s contemporary filmmaking, liberates them from the burden of narrative logic, and stretches them across the screen like Hannibal Lecter hanging a victim by the flaps of his skin. Whereas “Heli,” “Battle of Heaven,” and other recent Mexican breakouts have told stories that were punctuated with acts of extreme barbarity and sexual violence, this one inverts that equation, Minter creating a psychedelic slipstream of obscenities that inserts brief moments of context between all the incest, cannibalism, and necrophilia.
Like his contemporaries, Minter seems determined to reflect, explain, and ultimately resist the plague of corruption and drug-related savagery that has swept across his homeland, and the young writer-director’s debut is unprecedented in the directness with which it attempts to do so. “We Are the Flesh” may be maddeningly abstract, but there’s nothing subtle about a group singalong of the Mexican national anthem during a scene in which an innocent man is slaughtered so that our heroes can drink the juices that sprays from his neck.
As producer Julio Chavezmontes explains in the film’s production notes: “There is no other way to respond to the senseless atrocities that scream to us from every newsstand. In a country ruled by violence, the artist cannot help it if his visions are mad, incomprehensible, and drenched in blood.”
“We Are the Flesh” begins with Mariano fidgeting around an apartment so decrepit that we’re easily able to infer the fall of man. Opening with a black screen and the sound of heavy breathing, the film introduces itself as a slow crescendo of nausea — a gross symphony of slurping, the sloshing of suspicious liquids, and the delirious sounds of Mariano banging away at a drum (in spite of all the awful atrocities to come, Hernandez remains the film’s most terrifying chord, the equal of “Holy Motors” actor Denis Lavant when it comes to creating a charismatic embodiment of pure madness). But the party doesn’t really start until the scavenger is joined by two hapless teenage siblings: A gawky post-pubescent boy Mariano calls “Skeletor” (Diego Gamaliel), and his strangely impressionable short-haired sister (Maria Evoli).
Mariano, whose voice fills the hovel with satanic fullness, tells his new roommates that “People shy away from certain thoughts, their lives a continuous distraction from their own perversion.” The guy is creeped out; the girl slurps up every word. The next thing you know, Mariano is masturbating over the sight of the young man having (possibly unsimulated) sex with his sister. This is approximately 30 minutes into the movie, and Minter isn’t the type to climax too soon. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
The rest of the film sinks deeper into the darkness by staring into the sun, Minter focusing on his parade of perversions with such intensity that they soon blur into allegory. The pallid squalor of Mariano’s apartment is exchanged for a rocky cave, which glows as red as a furnace and obfuscates the set’s backgrounds with its steam. “When there’s no light, and your eye’s can’t see, your mind’s eye can see what lies beyond.” With dialogue like that, it’s hard not to think of Mariano as Minter’s stand-in, or to cast ourselves as the pliable teens at his disposal.
Indeed, “We Are the Flesh” is so instructive that it’s hard to find any wiggle room for even the most amenable viewers to think for themselves. As Minter begins to introduce new characters and further confuse any sense of a story, his film only becomes more obvious and narrow. For every moment of sick visceral genius (e.g. whenever Hernandez or Evoli are left to their own devices), there’s another of clumsy metaphor (e.g. the limp punchline of the movie’s final minutes).
Some passages manage to provide both, as protracted close-ups of the actors’ genitals are sustained for long enough to go from amusingly confrontational to intellectually bankrupt. Jodorowsky fans might appreciate how Mariano’s cave symbolizes a womb for new beginnings, but Minter does a far more effective job of distilling his country’s violence — and inviting a deeper study of apocalyptic imagery in Mexican film and culture — than he does of suggesting a way forward.
“The spirit does not reside within the flesh, the flesh is the spirit itself!” barks Mariano. “So I kindly ask all your lowlifes devour me until nothing is left.” Mexico may be eating itself alive, but there’s only so much that can be gleaned from watching it chew with its mouth open.
“We Are the Flesh” opens theatrically in Los Angeles on Friday, January 13th, and in New York on Friday, January 20th.