Manuel Martín Cuenca’s Cannibal begins promisingly as a polished genre exercise, with an opening long shot of a couple waiting to drive away from a gas station strikingly revealed to be from the point of view of a serial killer. As the camera shifts left, a chase sequence is set into eerie motion—a low-key spectacle of controlled chaos that ends with a car upside down in a ditch, a streak of blood across the highway, and a girl plopped naked on a wooden table in a cabin in the mountains of Andalusia. Cuenca’s meticulous camera setups and fluid movements, even the calculated means by which he relegates carnage off screen, exudes a Haneke-ian refinement that’s mirrored in the care with which the story’s boogeyman, Carlos (Antonio de la Torre), tends to the fabric at his Granada tailor shop—and the women he feasts on for his supper. This parallelism is shrewd enough, but like its opening scene, Cannibal keeps us at a remove that eventually becomes telling of Cuenca’s reticence to explore whatever feelings of isolation and yearning and tradition-mongering may inform his main character’s grisly compulsion.
Carlos’s life in Granada is one of routine, and the nuances of that life offer insights into his psyche that feel largely borrowed from a stock serial killer’s handbook. Murder, for him, is just another thing to fit into a schedule that includes trips to the car wash, appointments with prospective clients, and bingo dates with an old woman. At a local church, he accepts an assignment to repair an immaculately detailed cloth, after which Aurora (María Alfonsa Rosso) stubbornly reveals that that material is too “sacred” for Carlos to handle. He insists, “My father would have been proud,” before threatening her with the prospect of meeting a woman and never coming to see her again. Our confusion as to whether Aurora is Carlos’s mother is invited, and only cleared up in a later scene when, after the woman shames him with the opinion that people can’t change, Carlos expresses satisfaction that they aren’t related by blood. This conspicuous moment of clarification gets at nothing besides hinting at Carlos’s taste for flesh being less than clandestine, and is a reductive extension of the script’s method of check-listing the symptoms of the man’s psychosis (dead father, trouble with women, Catholic guilt) in lieu of actual inquiry.
Over the course of the film’s running time, Carlos murders his meddlesome upstairs neighbor, Alexandra (Delphine Tempels), following a fight that the masseuse has with one of her clients, and entertains a romantic relationship with the woman’s sister, Nina (Olimpia Melinte), that doesn’t end with pieces of her inside his stomach. Given Carlos’s occupation and the story’s stolid fascination with religious ritual, from prayer to fallas festivities, Cannibal reveals an interest in the declining role of tradition in Spain. Throughout, Carlos’s tailorship, like religious practice, is understood as a vestige of a dying way of life, and Carlos’s indifference while he prays suggests that he may never succeed at being resurrected as someone who can subsist on carbohydrates. But his cannibalism, as metaphor, is less easily comprehended. Whereas a ballsier filmmaker, like Carlos Reygadas, might have forced an audacious connection between Carlos’s appetite for flesh and any sex-negative feelings that may possess him, the roots of his appetite remain outside our reach, his cannibalism scanning only as a muddled metaphor for itself.