The Near-Brilliant Anti-Art Depravity of We Are the Flesh
“There is no such thing as love,” the sister (María Evioli) explains to her brother (Diego Gamalie) as she stands over his face, dripping menstrual blood onto his lips, “Only demonstrations of love.”
This disturbing sequence is one of a handful in Emiliano Rocha Minter’s shocking new film in which a depraved conceit is paired with dialogue that admits the conceit’s thematic purpose. There is no sly and layered symbolism or disorienting obfuscation here. In this sense, Rocha Minter’s film is less like those of Pier Paolo Passolini, Lars von Trier, or Gaspar Noé (shock cinema royalty against whose work Rocha Minter’s provocative material will undoubtedly earn comparative mention) and more like that of his new Mexican cinema predecessors. That is, where other famous film provocateurs so thoroughly bury artistic intent in detached metaphoric observation of their soulless characters and events that many standard cinema-goers would surrender and outrightly dismiss the entire product, Rocha Minter, like Guillermo del Toro or Alejandro González Iñárritu, serves fantastic metaphor as an appetizer separate of the main textual course (a story set in a world of real cruelty and despair) so as not to dilute the bitter interpretation. In fact, Rocha Minter does more than segment the literal. He provides an onscreen conductor to his hellish orchestra.
While shock cinema typically begs the question, “Is there a purpose for the existence of this terrible film experience?” Rocha Minter’s film employs the maniacal poetry of its main character to dictate that purpose scene-by-scene, daring the audience to discuss whether the purpose itself has artistic value.
We Are the Flesh‘s lead character, a hermit named Mariano (Noé Hernández), has the crazy-eyed and wide-mouthed grin of Willem Defoe at his most menacing. He walks quickly and spastically, but hunched over and troll-like. And, once his visitors arrive as a pair of siblings seeking refuge within his apocalyptically-ruined apartment complex, he rarely shuts up, hissing and spitting broken bible-like verse in a psychotic untelling of Genesis. Viewers who give up their audience when Mariano violently manipulates the brother and sister into their first sexual encounter (and there will justifiably be many) will recognize his position as the snake within this post-post-industrial Eden, but might also be surprised to learn (or maybe not) that his position within the narrative ends in a perverted Christ-like sacrifice.
But start to finish in the strange nightmare morality play put on by a cast of three main characters, the history of humanity is explored through two human subjects with Mariano standing in as their religious savior, their un-divine world’s sub-divine creator, and the satanic adversary, always all at once. Because there’s a sense in this film that it’s all being pulled back in to a final point of singularity, everything that history has made complex since the initial pure and innocent singularity of creation now drawn into a messy singularity of nihilistic destruction.
This, of course, is more than just interpretive speculation. It is rather bluntly stated. Mariano’s first order of business is assigning to the siblings the task of helping him construct a large embryonic structure, a womb in which they can float again as fetuses in a dense liquid and, this time, “the agonizing moment of birth will never come.”
And Rocha Minter’s film has a preoccupation with the biological act of reproduction as a baseline of human truth. The most clearly observed shots in the film are of close-ups of genitalia. While the film’s physical setting very well could be a well-produced stage production and much of the non-sexual action is presented in impressionistic and surrealist motion footage, close-up shots of a growing erection, pulsing testicles, and resting labia are presented like nighttime documentary footage of landscapes. Sex is unsimulated, masturbation captured to climax, and rape scenes filmed with un-aroused giddiness by cinematographer Yollótl Alvarado. “Don’t forget,” Mariano preaches in a late soliloquy, yet again a spoken flashcard meant to spoonfeed the viewer the meaning of the text, “that the spirit does not reside in the flesh. Flesh is the spirit itself.”
Between these scenes of un-erotic sexual interest, there is witnessed the aimlessness and emptiness of doing and building, the three characters attempting to create something new and final that always resembles some ugly version of a thing that was already created, built of parts from ruined things that were also already created– both in terms of physical structure and social behavior. Every recipe, every repurposed mechanism, every behavioral routine is abomination or satire of the thing that came before, a veritable fun-house mirror distortion of the world that did not work.
But the film is more than just deconstruction as we academically think of the term. Academic deconstruction is measured, careful, bit-by-bit. Everything in We Are the Flesh exists in that final breath between the process of deconstruction and the outcome of deconstruction, between dying and death. And everything is everything here.
A late scene sees a soldier tied to a chair, verbally tortured by Mariano as the sister assists him. The hermit tells the soldier that he is going to murder him, but not for any patriotic or ideological reason. His death will come as a product of random chance. And just before they slit the soldiers throat in chillingly unceremonious fashion, they have him belt out the patriotic lyrics of the Mexican National Anthem, an exhibition of how mortality itself empties the meaning of our national, political, and militaristic identities. This scene stands as the cinematic sister to Kurt Vonnegut’s defeatist sentiment expressed in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five: “…even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.”
And with its constructive elements, We Are the Flesh bleeds the life out of essentially every element of human history in similar fashion– art, music, religion, etc. The score, provided by Esteban Aldrete, works with the screen material in ways that are interchangeably ironic to the point of removing all sincerity or on-the-nose to the point of disrupting narrative investment. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor is unleashed over material with which no fan of classical music could ever dream or wish it to be paired. At times, the imagery of the film readily imitates the art of Peter Paul Rubens, a Flemish painter working within the same Baroque period as Bach. Not only do close-up shots of Mariano bear uncanny resemblance to the forward facing expression in Rubens’ Two Satyrs, but the director’s framing in a particularly troublesome late rape scene is very similar to the artist’s The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus and a climactic orgy immediately recalls the painting The Fall of the Damned. Rocha Minter, at least somewhat conciously, is again smashing and restructuring a thing that already existed and was once thought beautiful to create a new thing that is empty of value, gross, and unappealing.
There is something borderline brilliant in Rocha Minter’s filmic exercise, which may itself be the opposite of art and the absence of culture. Something which can only accurately be described as a success as defined by its own stated ambition, but that ambition and the technique used to arrive there is so stiltedly joyless and vacuously cynical that it becomes difficult to say whether acknowledging the film as a success is an endorsement or a warning. We Are the Flesh would suggest that that distinction does not matter, because the film is truth, or at least a complete deconstruction of all human effort to find truth, which is a hard thing to come back from when it is presented so assuredly.
We Are the Flesh will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre January 13th and in New York City on January 20 at Cinema Village.
Featured Image: Arrow Films