The title of “Cannibal,” Spanish helmer Manuel Martin Cuenca’s fifth feature, is not merely figurative. Its hero, brilliantly incarnated by Antonio de la Torre, kills and consumes beautiful young women, and unlike other same-species carnivores, he pursues his solitary avocation with the same measured deliberation with which he plies his craft as a high-end tailor. Sumptuously shot in carefully composed long takes, the film firmly keeps its butchery offscreen, and given its glacial pace and lack of overt sensationalism, it definitely ranks as a niche item — and a rarefied one, at that. But sophisticated arthouse audiences might eat it up.
Cuenca opens his film with a murder. In extreme long shot, a couple at a gas station get into their car and drive off, at which point the camera’s viewpoint is revealed as that of Carlos (de la Torre). He forces them off the road, taking the woman’s body from the wreck to his chalet in the snow-covered mountains, where he reverently lays her nude body on a table, selecting the tools for her dismemberment. A single, sinuous ribbon of blood flowing alongside her immaculate corpse is the film’s only visualization of what follows.
Cuenca offers no explanation for his hero’s peculiar predilection, though it sometimes seems to represent a form of love, sexual communion or even transubstantiation, not unlike that enunciated by a priest while offering the host in a church-set mass. Certainly religious symbolism abounds in Granada, where Carlos resides in a spacious apartment opposite his tailor shop. But religion may serve as just another ritual, like tailoring or vivisecting a body, which speaks to Carlos’ sense of precision and order. Indeed, if Carlos made a film, it would probably look like this one.
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When sexy Romanian blonde Alexandra (Olimpia Melinte) moves into an upstairs apartment, her music and loud arguments, or even her simple presence, draw Carlos to watch her from his window. But when she invades his apartment, seeking help and prying into his secrets, only a fade to black (one of the film’s many such discreet ellipses) marks her disappearance from the scene.
Shortly afterward, Alexandra’s dark-haired, quieter sister, Nina (also thesped by Melinte), comes to Carlos looking for clues to her sibling’s whereabouts. Setting aside his usual need to keep a low profile, Carlos becomes more and more involved with Nina’s quest and Nina herself, squiring her to the police station or sharing a vegetarian dinner. Finally he invites her to his mountain retreat on a trip that proves continually and surprisingly life-changing.
The film’s slow deliberation and aesthetic rigor act as a form of seduction, luring the viewer into unwilling identification with Carlos; the immensely satisfying balance of the compositions somehow extends to the character (or vice versa), his monstrousness as carefully hidden by Cuenca as by Carlos himself. A quietly crafted harmony of surfaces and colors suffuses lenser Pau Esteve Birba’s every frame, whether we’re looking at a snowy mountain vista, an exquisitely ordered tailor shop or a nude body about to be cut up.
Although the scenery varies greatly, the northern chalet of Carlos’ “other life” is shot with the same painterly meticulousness as the warm interiors of Carlos’ old-world urban respectability. Here, as in Matteo Garrone’s “First Love,” about a goldsmith’s obsessive need to sculpt his lover’s body through starvation, aestheticism aligns itself with carnal perversion.