'We Are the Flesh' Is a Work of Art Masquerading as an Atrocity
The madman’s meditations on the rewards afforded solitude are intriguing and there are intimations that he has roots in a reality we might recognize.
To inherit the apocalypse is to inherit the world of the dead. We’ve been told this over and over by post-apocalyptic movies since 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, but they’re rarely as visceral as what confronts us in We Are the Flesh (Tenemos la carne). This film is really one of the most abysmal things I have ever seen, and in my several decades of purveying shock cinema, I've seen many terrible things.
That’s not to say I didn’t like it.
It’s difficult to sum up We Are the Flesh -- in theaters 13 January and on DVD 13 February -- but it reminds me of a 1985 very PG movie called The Quiet Earth (We Are the Flesh would easily be rated X, if such sincere ratings still existed). For those who don’t know, The Quiet Earth revolves around a New Zealand man, Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), who wakes one morning to discover that a secret project he was working on, dubbed “Operation Flashlight”, has done in, as far as he knows, every other living soul on the planet. He tools about wrecking cars and binge-shopping for the better part of an hour -- think Charlton Heston in The Omega Man or the happy-go-lucky cheerleaders from Night of the Comet -- before he stumbles on an attractive young woman and then an attractive young man. The two newcomers eventually take a fancy to one another, leaving Zac a third wheel in a world with only three remaining wheels.
I mention The Quiet Earth because We Are the Flesh is a kind of photo negative of it, while also preserving these themes of jealousy and madness. Where the earlier movie treats us to hundreds of luscious exteriors of Auckland and its environs, carefully excised of every living soul save our principals, We Are the Flesh unravels in bleak interior shots. These reveal the lair of a madman, Mariano (Noé Hernández), who seems to have survived the apocalypse in some manner of a mental asylum.
He is visited by a brother and sister, Lucio and Fauna (Diego Gamaliel and María Evoli), bent on robbing him; that is, until they fall into a kind of relationship with him. At this point they start helping him rebuild his institution into a simulacrum of a birth canal. This already outrageous situation devolves further -- into incest and necrophilia -- after the madman dies: having become dependent on his pronouncement, Lucio and Fauna respond to the new, rudderless horror of post-apocalyptic reality by defiling his corpse.
It’s all a bit much, but at the same time, I see where it’s going. We Are the Flesh is a work of art masquerading as an atrocity. The madman’s meditations on the rewards afforded solitude are intriguing and there are intimations that he has familiarity with the recipe for Zyklon B, the gas the Nazis used to exterminate the Jews, and that a successor of this gas is what somehow genocided humanity. (This again recalls The Quiet Earth, where Zac is affiliated with this Operation Flashlight that ended the human race.) The madman is fed eggs and meat from an unknown source, which he awards the thieving teenagers when they do his bidding. There seems to still be an elite force of some kind in control, but it vanishes when the madman dies.
Whether you count this as logic or not, thought has gone into the architecture of this utterly crazy film. It’s hard these days to refrain from seeing everything through the lens of our current world’s unhinged politics, so I will indulge: at the core of We Are the Flesh, I see an anxiety about the way the mad are processed by society. It's galling to know, as we do, that solitary confinement is routinely practiced as a course of incarcerative discipline.
We Are the Flesh is Mexican in origin, so it’s a bit cheeky of me to associate it with current American politics. But madness would seem to transcend national boundaries, when we in the United States are awaiting the installation of what we know ahead of time will be the most destructive government the nation has ever seen, and not only we, but the rest of the world too, are going to have to pay for it. And yet, we in the West have long been torturers, not only of our own but of citizens around the globe. It’s hard for me not to think of this as We Are the Flesh somehow devolves in its third act into an even more repulsive bacchanal of blood-letting, cannibalism, panic, privation, and useless human suffering, all spearheaded by a Charles Manson lookalike lunatic, whom the film resurrects in what seems to be a lengthy flashback.
That's not to say the film is not determinedly Mexican in its preoccupations (it has the endorsement of Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Iñárritu, which is particularly helpful considering how batshit insane this movie is). “There is a uniquely Mexican brand of sensationalist journalism that thrives in every newsstand in the country,” producer Julio Chavezmontes says in the film's press notes. He goes on:
These cheaply printed rags show in their front page grisly photographs of butchered men, next to suggestive images of nude models. In this lowest of cultural forms, the disquieting entanglement of violence and desire sprouts almost unwillingly from the cavernous depths of the national soul. These newspapers remain unmatched as a gaze into a country that finds its pleasures in Hell."
I confess I was previously unfamiliar with these devilish publications, but with all due respect to Chavezmontes, they do not sound “uniquely Mexican” to me. We in these sad United States have had true detective pulp magazines for decades, and here too they are reprehensible concoctions made of equal parts antiquated misogyny, prurient interest in violence, and callous exploitation of real-life tragedy.
Chavezmontes' statement goes on to invoke the bloody history of the Aztecs and the horrific “war on drugs” to claim that Mexico has “never left the ruins”, that the nation “has always existed in the aftermath of some apocalypse or another.” I don’t doubt the truth of this statement, save that I am again dubious of its uniqueness to Mexico. The Quiet Earth, after all, is a product of New Zealand, but Zac ultimately blames the United States for the quantum effect that has brought about humanity’s demise. Cuarón’s masterpiece Children of Men assigns a terrifying nativism to the other major dying Western empire, the United Kingdom, this in the service of another apocalyptic nightmare.
All of which brings me around to We Are the Flesh’s amazing trick ending, which I will try to reference without revealing. After the film shows moment after moment of madness, the ending reminds us that the greatest fear among the mad is to learn that they have been wrong all along. The great trick here is that it's hard to know who's been wrong, or perhaps, who's been mad.