Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
September 2014


Crimes of dispassion

Elegant, austere 'Cannibal' takes a quiet, detached approach to lurid subject matter

Film Movement
Director: Manuel Martín Cuenca
Screenplay: Alejandro Herná ndez and Manuel Martín Cuenca, based on the novel by Humberto Arenal
Starring: Antonio de la Torre, Olimpia Melinte, Florin Fildan and María Alfonsa Rossa
Not rated / 1 hour, 56 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

Cannibal is unique among movies about cannibals in that it rarely (if ever) shows any inclination toward compulsion, or obsession, or anything else one might associate with that kind of psychosis.

Sure, the Hannibal series can be every bit as cold and calculating, but it's also brimming with passion and fury. Its titular character's meticulousness is in the service of an artistic sensuality; when he makes a meal of his hobby, he enjoys it with the sublime satisfaction of a master chef.

That's not the case with Cannibal's central figure, Carlos (Antonio de la Torre), nor with director Manuel Martín Cuenca's approach to the character or his behavior. You might call his actions crimes of dispassion.

Cuenca shoots almost entirely in static medium and wide compositions; his camera doesn't move much, rarely getting intimately involved. It only observes. The most impressive trick is the film's opening scene. In an extreme wide shot, we see, in the center of the frame, a convenience store parking lot, brightly lit near its gas pumps but otherwise surrounded by darkness on all sides. From this distance we see a man and a woman - presumably a couple - going about their business at the station before getting into their car and driving off, the car heading in the general direction of the camera before veering off-screen to the left. At this point, we discover we've been observing from the windshield of a parked car, which then follows the couple down and runs them off the road in the middle of a cold, dark nowhere.

This scene and the one that follows it are among the only moments of actual violence in Cannibal. We're shown only enough in the opening sequence to understand Carlos' specific proclivity. He disregards the man in the car, but takes the woman to his abandoned cabin in the mountains, undresses her, cuts her up (we see no explicit violation of the body, only blood oozing from off-screen) and voila, he has a freezer full of meat.

But that's as close as the film gets to really delving into Carlos' actions. There are other killings, but almost all are implied rather than shown. A scene will play out between Carlos and some unfortunate, unwitting victim, but Cuenca will fade to black before we see anything happen, and then fade back in days, even weeks later.

As for the actual cannibalization? Well, it's certainly made clear what he does with the bodies, but here again, the depiction of this killer differs from most others of his stripe. He has dinner alone in his apartment each night, his meal usually consisting of a single piece of cooked meat from his freezer. But as we watch him eat, we see no desire, no gratification. Unlike Mads Mikkelsen's aforementioned Hannibal Lecter, he doesn't seem to have any sort of refined taste. Carlos does it because he does it, not because he particularly enjoys it - or enjoys anything else, for that matter. He makes a modest living as a tailor in a small Spanish town, and at one point he tells a character that he loves his job. But we see little (if any) demonstration of joy or bliss in what he does, either at the shop during the day or in his occasional extracurricular activity.

This allows Carlos to remain an enigma pretty much throughout. De la Torre's performance is the absolute picture of restraint. No matter the situation, he remains at an even keel. He makes no reaction, even when someone makes a move toward him, or takes an interest in him.

Because Cuenca shows us early on the attention and care with which he handles the bodies of his female victims - and that the men he kills in the process are no more than collateral damage, and never make their way into his freezer - it's clear there's a sexual component at play here. And over the course of the film, Carlos coldly resists any physical attention from women. However, Cannibal smartly avoids the temptation to become a full-fledged psychological profile. It prefers to keep both him and us at a distance, to show us this man and his hidden monstrosity in as detached a manner as possible.

The script - based on a novel by Humberto Arenal - provides hints into his background, things that may or may not explain what he has become. But the film doesn't follow those leads. It just lets them be. I'm curious about whether the source novel went into more psychological detail and explained Carlos' whole backstory. Whatever the case, Cuenca's withholding approach is one of the film's strongest features.

Though there are various encounters between Carlos and those he has targeted, most of the film centers around his acquaintance with his beautiful Romanian neighbor Alexandra, and - once she mysteriously disappears - her sister Nina. Both characters are played by the same actress, Olimpia Melinte - Alexandra as a strawberry blonde, Nina as a brunette. What develops between Carlos and Nina is the closest Cannibal comes to an emotional arc, but once again Cuenca is as withholding as possible.

With its patient storytelling, splendidly composed visuals and performances devoid of artificial affect, Cannibal is a fascinating mixture of the somber and the macabre. I'm not sure if it really knows how to end (one moment in particular rings false), but in that specific class of movies about serial killers and cannibals, it carves its own distinctive niche.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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