There is great value in difficult film. Films that don’t pair well with popcorn. Films that make you question who the hell would dream these dreams, and then who the hell would watch them. I’ve always been drawn to these challenging cinematic experiences as they can stay with you far longer than easily digested ones. At Fantasia 2016 the most challenging film I had the pleasure of seeing was WE ARE THE FLESH.
The Mexican film takes place in a reality slightly adjacent to our own. A brother and sister are searching for food and shelter in their urban wasteland. One day they happen upon a man, or at least a presence that looks like a man. The small, impish man traps these two like a fly in a spider’s web and forces them to submit to his will. At first they protest, those these initial the demands are small. They must wear his clothes and help him build his cave (two-by-fours and packing tape are horribly inefficient building tools, but they get the job done). As the stakes get higher, the brother and sister sink deeper into this stranger’s hell.
The structure of the film (I hesitate to call it a “plot”) is not entirely unclear, but it does unfold slowly and intentionally. Instead the film’s visual language takes priority. Every frame of WE ARE THE FLESH is gorgeous. Color is at peak saturation and the sets have staggering detail. In fact, as we watch the siblings build the cave, we see the layers of their new world forming around them, which mirrors their further plunge into their captor’s darkness.
As the film progresses it begins to check off societal taboos, one by one. Incest, menstruation, violence, and orgies are presented as intended acts of cultural inquisition. The visual can be shocking, and the sex not simulated, but the film’s boundary pushing is not done merely to make the audience wince. You are made to think, react viscerally, which then forces you to examine how your reaction formed.
Films like WE ARE THE FLESH should both be made and be seen. They turn a passive audience into an active one by forcing them to engage with the challenging material. There will be people who balk at the sexuality in the film, or retch at the body-horror, but this film was not made to please everyone.
I cannot say of I’ll ever sit through a screening of WE ARE THE FLESH again, but I am grateful that Fantasia gave me the opportunity to see this beautiful experiment. I’ll be chewing on this one for a long time.