San Diego Latino Film Festival 2011: We Are What We Are, The Fish Child, and Elite

Different types of zombies walk among us.

San Diego Latino Film Festival 2011: We Are What We Are, The Fish Child, and Elite
Photo: San Diego Latino Film Festival

Different types of zombies walk among us. Some are dead on the inside, while others erode right before our very eyes. So goes the startling opening sequence of Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are, which finds a deathly pale man slowly gliding through a slick urban space, slightly hunched over, wheezing, and sporting a thousand-yard stare. He’s seemingly stuck in a hallucinatory nightmare, only stopping at a posh storefront to salivate over a series of mannequins, as if the lifeless bodies were fillet mignon. Grau lingers on the man’s knobby finger making prints on the glass, what turns out to be his last act before keeling over, spitting out thick tarry blood, and dying on the sidewalk. A group of precise janitorial workers collect the body, wiping away all traces of his existence before too many wealthy looking onlookers get inconvenienced. It’s immediately clear that rich and poor often feed off each other, and not always in ways we expect.

While We Are What We Are ultimately wears its hollow critique of the current social divide in Mexico City on its sleeve, the film manages to infuse the desperation and anger of the lower classes in a potently horrific context. The dying man leaves behind a family—wife, two sons, and a daughter—that seems more perturbed than upset by the paterfamilia’s untimely demise. When it’s unveiled that these ravenous people are cannibals, their tight timetable for food makes perfect sense. Brainwashed into thinking that feeding patterns are based on some ritualistic code of hunting, killing, and slaughtering, oldest son Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) takes it upon himself to find the family’s next meal. “If we do the ritual, everything will be all right,” one character says, and this blind faith seems to combat against the exterior social forces slowly closing in.

Grau paces each set piece around the different forms of anticipation personified by the even keeled Alfredo and his brother Julien (Alan Chavez), a volatile hot head who often makes difficult situations even more unpredictable. Their varying modes of action are one of the more interesting elements of the film, but ultimately both inhabit the same terrible lust. After nearly an hour of wondering the city, arguing with his family, and flirting with a homosexual undercurrent, Alfredo returns home and finds himself in the middle of a bloodbath between his family and some greedy cops who want to arrest them for their own profit. By this point, We Are What We Are fully commits to a calculating blunt-force-trauma style of filmmaking, an aesthetic where violent deaths are prolonged and incessant suffering pronounced. The interior torture these characters once experienced is now easily projected through conventional physical destruction, and the visceral impact is far less devastating than Grau wants it to be. These zombies with human shells are simply monsters after all, just another mutated shade of a human race begging for scraps.

Just like an overexcited child who’s had too much sugar, The Fish Child can’t sit still. Director Lucia Puenzo’s stab at mixing magical realism with lesbian crime is so scatterbrained it defiles any humanity lingering behind these wonky characterizations. Teenage rich girl Lala (Ines Efron) is secretly having an affair her 20-year-old Payaguayan maid (Mariela Vitale), who herself is sleeping with the powerful patriarch of the house. The eye-rolling melodrama continues from here, when Puenzo throws in a murder, an escape sequence, and ultimately a hair-brained assault on a local police chief’s villa to sensationalize the otherwise monotonous story. The Fish Child deals with the impact of past traumas and social restrictions on young lovers, but the film is so poorly edited it’s hard to pin down exactly what theme takes precedent. The glacial opening hour unfolds in a discombobulated flashback structure, weaving three different temporalities together to formulate Lala’s past, present, and future. But there’s no aesthetic reason for this approach other than to highlight art-film conventions and non-linear self-indulgence. Only the bookend glimmers of an underwater figure contain any sense of wonder, blue figments of a young life snuffed out by fear of adulthood. By the end of The Fish Child, memories such as these fade away and deep-seeded panic still controls this cinematic hot mess.

The title has got to be ironic. However, that would be giving Elite, a torturous low-fi Puerto Rican crime drama with no brains and even less tension, a shred of credit it doesn’t deserve. The silly rag-tag group of cops and tech geeks, assembled to hunt down an escaped drug lord and his violent crews, are some of the most incompetent professionals ever put to screen, bumbling, joking, and fucking their way through an illogical narrative. Not only does this laughable brood treat the growing threat of national corruption, brutal murder, and rampant kidnappings as an excuse to talk shit, they often luck into success and survival entirely by accident. The lengthy montage scene where the group “trains” is laughable, so epically conventional it makes a traditional Hollywood shoot-em-up complex by comparison. Only the right-hand man of the aforementioned drug lord, a diabolically Shakespearean gay thug named Felix Flores (Rodolfo Rodriguez), shows any depth beyond the silliness of the inane plot. Yet despite his occasional flair and charisma, Felix literally looks bored killing and maiming the lifeless peons populating this simplistic genre universe. We feel his pain.

The San Diego Latino Film Festival runs from March 10—20.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Glenn Heath Jr.

Glenn Heath's writing has appeared in Cineaste, The Notebook, Little White Lies, and The Film Stage.

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