One of the outstanding films of Fantastic Fest 2016 was also one of the most divisive. While audiences cheered the pasteurized mainstream sci-fi film Arrival and the sumptuous beauty of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, Mexican director Emiliano Rocha Minter’s We Are The Flesh shocked audiences into stunned silence. Fest attendees inured to extreme gore and torture porn found something in We Are The Flesh that still retains the power to disturb and provoke: explicit sex. Like directors Gaspar Noé and Alejandro Jodorowsky and author George Bataille, 26-year-old Minter conjures images that take us deep into areas that were and are still taboo. He’s a pilgrim descending into darkness in search of light. If there is a God and God is everywhere then even in Hell there is rapture. And sometimes you gotta be the turd in the punchbowl to do Jesus right.
A film like We Are The Flesh uses cinema in the service of what movies do best: replicate dreams. In the hellish bardo that the movie plunges us into, plot and narrative take a backseat to a series of surreal images and a trance inducing soundtrack that insinuate and point to things beyond knowing. We see but we don’t completely understand what we’re seeing. Like ceremonial magic, film is a language that transcends symbol and gesture. We are often left at the celluloid door breaking holes in it with the fists of our eyes. In the case of We Are The Flesh, the plot, such as it is, is best described by the the press notes:
A young brother and sister, roaming an apocalyptic city, take refuge in the dilapidated lair of a strange hermit. He puts them to work building a bizarre cavernous structure, where he acts out his insane and depraved fantasies. Trapped in this maddening womb-like world under his malign influence, they find themselves sinking into the realms of dark and forbidden behaviour.
There was a great line in the ad campaign for George Romero’s masterpiece Dawn Of The Dead: “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Emiliano Rocha Minter was born in Mexico City, a city that until recent years had been spared the full brunt of Mexico’s drug wars. But drug-related atrocities have hit the streets of Mexico City and continue to grow rampant on the city’s outskirts. More than 100,000 Mexicans have died in the past decade in drug battles between warring gangs. How does a young artist channel what he is witnessing in his own home, when the serpentine line between waking and dreaming nightmare is constantly shifting? How does one maintain sanity in an insane world? You write. You sing. You make fucked up movies.
In the tradition of filmmakers like Jodorowsky, Fernando Arrabal and Juan López Moctezuma, Minter has attempted to discharge the alchemy of film to transform and inflame the dark stuff - art as exorcism. We Are The Flesh rages against the complacency of the viewer. It demands you sit up and pay attention. It screams at you and seduces you. The imagery veers from blunt, violent, angry in-your-faceness to fluid, swirling, mind shattering psychedelia. Sex organs in extreme close-up pulse to the beat of the heart, labial gates form portals to the ultimate question mark in the sky. Flesh is torn, blood flows. This is the meat pit of absolute reality. Minter takes you places you’ve only dreamed of… if your dreams were that of a man in the throes of some mad fever—all of it stunningly realized by cinematographer Yollótl Alvarado. At times, I was reminded of Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes. Brakhage filmed autopsies so close-in that celluloid rendered flesh into land and seascapes. Alvarado does something similar with genitals. A close-up of a penis lounging on testicles looks like a bullfrog with inflated vocal sacs. The objectified view of the camera takes the erotic right out of the picture. We Are The Flesh is ripe with sex but it’s not sexy, though it is filled with life force.
“Eroticism is assenting to life even in death”—George Bataille.
Minter has made something of a masterpiece in We Are The Flesh. It is a search for meaning in a world that has lost its center. In its thrashing chaos, there is an artist trying to work things out. Like the elaborate structure of wooden sticks and plastic tape that the characters are building within their underground world, Minter has built his own makeshift reality. But Minter’s has better bones.
The film glows with crepuscular light. There are cum shots and penetrations lit in the heightened pastels and posed comic book architecture of F.X. Pope’s porn mindbender Cafe Flesh. And Minter, whether he knows it or not, has ventured into Gerard Damiano’s “dark night of the hole” melancholy of The Devil And Miss Jones. When Catholics do this shit , they go all the way, propelled by centuries of sexual repression. Pasolini’s Salo took us there only to drop us into a pile of fascist-flavored shit.
We Are The Flesh features one of the truly great performances of the past few years. Noé Hernández plays the role of the Manson-like madman who abducts the brother and sister. It is one of the most committed, naked, raw feats of acting you’ll ever see. Imagine Frank Booth crossed with a troglodyte spewing wisdom like “the spirit does not reside within the flesh, the flesh is the spirit itself! So I kindly ask that all you lowlifes devour me until nothing is left. Eat every bit of my rotten flesh. Drink my blood.” Jesus the thug in a sacramental heat while dressed in Member’s Only disco attire. I do my best, but words fail me in the face of such lunacy. Just see it… because you’ve never seen anything like it.
Hernández and We Are The Flesh may not get the attention of the world at large but this film and this actor will become cult legends. It doesn’t hurt that directors Alejandro González Iñárritu (Revenant) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) have thrown their support behind the film. Perhaps, the unsuspecting will be lured into viewing this demented work of art. What’s there to lose? Your mind?
We Are The Flesh will be released on Blu-ray on February 14. If you live in New York or L.A. you can see it in theaters now.
Here’s the trailer followed by an exclusive clip for Dangerous Minds.
Thanks to Arrow Films and MVD for the exclusive clip.