A brother and sister seek refuge with a filthy old man who coerces the siblings into incestuous sexual intercourse, and thereafter into cannibalizing a luckless soldier — a brief synopsis that barely hints at the intensity with which the Mexican shocker “We Are the Flesh” unleashes its joyously demented portrait of humanity. Serving as co-editor as well as writer and director, Emiliano Rocha Minter is very much the author of all the chaos wrought here, and his thoroughly arresting vision could squat quite comfortably alongside Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of hell. Commercial prospects are understandably limited to iron-stomached auds, though the pic’s opaque narrative will deter straight-up gore-hounds.
To say that Rocha Minter hasn’t made the most polite of debut features is putting it mildly. To borrow a casual understatement from one of its characters: “This is not your average party.” Set almost entirely inside a derelict apartment, “We Are the Flesh” has an ace up its sleeve in lead actor Noe Hernandez (“Sin nombre,” “Miss Bala”), here playing a grotesque so demonically charismatic that the way in which other characters fall under his spell just about feels plausible. Every narrative development in the film — from a young woman (Maria Evoli) dropping to her knees to perform explicitly shot oral sex on her brother (Diego Gamaliel), to a soldier relaxing to the point of near-acquiescence as his throat is slashed and drained into a bucket — is driven by little more than the inscrutable will of Hernandez’s unnamed antagonist.
“Antagonist” may not even be quite the right word for this Rumpelstiltskin-like troll, suggesting as it does any kind of moral framework in a film that aims to eradicate concepts as banal as “right” and “wrong.” Much of its most vivid imagery is purpose-built to interrogate the moral values society projects onto biological matter: human meat ground to a slush, slopping about in a bucket; a clitoral close-up; a pipette inserted casually into a hole in a boy’s temple; a sister’s gelatinous menses dripping into her brother’s mouth. (Curiously, in a film so clearly interested in the notion that humanity can be degraded to its constituent substances, there is very little scatological material.)
The pic’s primary joys — if that’s the word — are visual, as setting and mise-en-scene are permitted to outweigh the sparse narrative. Enclosed in the womb-like nest of a hellish, rotting apartment, Yollotl Alvarado’s camera becomes the scalpel laying bare the meat of the movie. A thick layer of dirty grease seems to smear every surface, captured in such loving detail that we can almost see the grimy fingerprints. “We Are the Flesh” is also perversely erotic: Sex scenes are shot with frank delight, Alvarado’s lens drinking in the lithe contortions of the extremely game performers, switching in one memorable scene to heat-map imagery as an intense coupling unfolds.
Music selections are likewise astute, with a rousing rendition of the Mexican national anthem immediately prior to an extreme bout of bloodletting wickedly foregrounding the inherent violence of its patriotic lyrics. Composer Esteban Aldrete’s score knows when to complement or ironically counter the on-screen action. Perhaps Rocha Minter had Kubrick’s counterintuitively classical selections in “A Clockwork Orange” in mind; it will certainly be a long time before Bach’s lovely Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor is pressed into the service of more outre drama.
Premiering in Rotterdam’s Bright Future strand, with the endorsement of Rocha Minter’s celebrated compatriots Carlos Reygadas (who takes a co-producer credit) and Alejandro G. Inarritu, “We Are the Flesh” fits neatly into the new wave of Mexican cinema not overly concerned with the audience’s comfort. Absent the Cannes prestige that boosted Reygadas’ most challenging work, with editorial content more inflammatory even than anything in Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 Mexi-cannibal sleeper “We Are What We Are,” it’s difficult to foresee Rocha Minter’s remarkable provocation leapfrogging such forerunners in terms of distribution or B.O. Still, it deserves to be made available to those with a taste for this kind of thing.