Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Somos Lo Que Hay: Death of a Watch Repairman

I am constantly surprised by how scary ostensibly respectable movies and moviemakers can be (The Sixth Sense messed my shit up), but lately I've also been more and more surprised by how ostensibly scary movies (or movies dealing with traditional horror subject matter) are not so much scary as exercises in how horror tropes can be applied to non-horror ideas. Monsters was a good case in point - I mean, you've got "Monsters" right there in the title, the setting is a post-alien infestation Mexico, and it's mostly about two people coming together despite their differences and surveying the radically changed landscape, both geographical and emotional. One of the biggest complaints about it was that it was barely a monster movie.

Likewise, Somos Lo Que Hay (We Are What We Are) is a pretty good cannibal movie, as movies about the limitations of modern masculinity go.

The movie opens with an older man walking/stumbling down the sidewalk somewhere in Mexico. He doesn't look well, he doesn't act well. He comes to the display window of a women's clothing shop and stares longingly at the mannequins. He presses his fingers against the glass, wanting something on the other side desperately. The look on his face is yearning and fear. He knows his time is coming. He begins vomiting blood and collapses in the middle of the sidewalk. People step around the body, blood is scrubbed away. This could be the opening to any movie about the tragedy of a family brought low by poverty and their struggle to survive.

And sure enough, what follows tells that story - a small watch repair business at an open-air market, unpaid debts, unfinished work, too much time with the whores. A mother, arguing sons, a daughter too smart for her station. All we're missing is the scene where they find out the family patriarch is dead. The daughter (Sabina) brings the news, the women wail, and the sons argue about how to continue in his absence. Underlying all of this, however, is a sense of anxiety and urgency, not grief or resignation. It's not that beloved Papa is gone, it's that he's left them all in the lurch somehow and they resent it. There is much talk about "getting something for tonight", which turns into talk of "getting someone for tonight."

This is a family of cannibals, and the man responsible for securing their food is now dead.

The rest of the film takes place over the course of a night, as the mother (Patricia), hotheaded, impulsive son Julian, levelheaded son Alfredo and Sabina all take their turns at trying to do what their father can no longer do.  The movie doesn't really focus on their intended victims too much - they're more there to illustrate things about the family themselves than to give us someone with whom to identify. The cannibalism itself also plays only a minor role - it could be anything urgent. Money to pay the rent, regular food, medicine for one of the children. Here, it just happens to be human flesh. What's important is what this need and how it gets filled tells us about the people tasked to provide for their families. This is a movie about the role of men, how they succeed, how they fail, and how they are constrained by cultural expectations.

Pretty much every man in this movie is a failure in one way or another - the father is supposed to be the family provider, but wastes all of the money he makes on prostitutes and dies leaving them in debt. Upon his death, one of the sons is called upon to become "the leader" - but who? Julian is too hotheaded and impulsive, solving everything with his fists, getting distracted by his dick. He's machismo incarnate. Alfredo is calmer, more methodical, but resents that his mother seems to love him less than the others, and possibly because he is gay. The detectives trying to track them down are inept and more worried about career advancement and image than actually making arrests. Sabina, probably the most clearheaded and competent member of the family, can't take the lead because she's not a man. Patricia rages at her dead husband and the mess he's left, and carries on doing what she must to keep the family safe. Men are the leaders, this movie says, but women are the ones doing the work, whether it's figuring out how to secure the family's next meal, or preparing the body when they do. Whatever men are supposed to be able to do, they are no longer capable of doing it, just of posturing in the appropriate ways.

We also get a clear sense throughout that it is this pressure, these expectations in the absence of any real preparation or qualification to fulfill them, that leaves men feeling hemmed in and trapped. The movie is filled with visual references to containment - the father presses his hand up against the glass of the display window, a motion echoed in Alfredo tracing a line through condensation on a window in their house. When the father dies, it is shot from above, neatly outlined by the frame of an overhead walkway. Even in death, he is boxed in.

Scenes are framed in doorways, in windows, in boxes, all clearly delineating the limits of their world - nobody can know what they do, they have to walk carefully, making sure not to cross any lines that might give them away. There are small boxes stacked up along the wall in their house, possibly filled with the ashes of previous victims - even in death, there are boxes. The furthest we get away from that is Alfredo's attempt to lure a man from a gay nightclub - the screen is filled with a crush of bodies, Alfredo is finally free of the square and straight lines, surrounded by a crush of other men. The world is viewed through windows - you can see what's out there, but you are separate from it. It is forever on the other side.

The movie ends as the sun rises and the events of the night before come to some resolution - who still lives, who does not. In the course of one night, one man's failure has changed his family irrevocably. Throughout the worst of the crisis, there is talk of completing "the ritual", every clock in the house is set for midnight, when the ritual must be completed. But, like what it takes to be a man, it is never made clear what the ritual is or why it is important. Just that it be done a certain way, because it's always been done that way.  Do not question, do not deviate. Just go through the motions, even as your world crumbles around your ears.

IMDB entry
Available on Netflix

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