Cannibal Manuel Martin Cuenca
Published Oct 20, 2014Manuel Martin Cuenca's Cannibal opens with the same sort of ritualistic exactitude that his titular carnivore protagonist demonstrates with his fastidiously orchestrated killings. At a remote gas station, as a couple prepares to depart after completing their transaction, our formalized, distanced long-shot of a gaze becomes that of a serial killer observing his prey. Though this gives way to a car chase, an accident and, eventually, a body being cleaned and prepared for consumption, the deliberate framing of the action and the restraint demonstrated in detailing what it and isn't shown implies a precision in filmmaking that denotes intent and planning.
This style, one that permeates each frame of this wholly austere, albeit detached, examination of tradition and ritual, is exemplary of style matching content. Carlos (Antonio de la Torre), a tailor in Granada, puts the same sense of precision into his work as he does his less than savoury hobby. His quotidian experience is one of limited human contact, engaging with others only out of survivalist need when not sitting in his sparsely decorated home passively gazing at Alexandra (Olimpia Melinte), a new Romanian neighbour with an abrasive disposition and a morally questionable massage business.
The first half of the film is an exercise in cultural dissection and — it being Spain — the related Catholic guilt. Every sequence exists to outline a tradition or a pattern framed meticulously and precisely regardless of its potentially grisly nature. Carlos' tailor-work relates to religious demonstrations, juxtaposing the cannibalistic compulsion with the act of Catholic adherence appropriately. What isn't examined with great detail is how these abject urges relate to our protagonist's lack of sexual impulse; that is until the murder of Alexandra brings her introverted sister Nina (Olimpia Melinte, again) into Carlos' life.
From here, Cannibal becomes a love story of sorts. Though there's a sense of danger looming in the periphery as Carlos and Nina get to know each other — with her reluctantly asking him for help finding her missing sister and him playing the reserved and mysterious neighbour — there's also a sense of yearning. Both characters are isolated from the surrounding world and are indirectly both representations of the purer more traditionalist values that Carlos' victims tend to eschew in favour of skinny-dipping or social faux pas. While it's never said and though Cuenca's removed, even languid, style doesn't outright say it, there is an underlying sense that Nina is safe with Carlos.
Within this template is a hint of moral preaching. The lack of examined sexuality and the linking of sexual desire with a killing impulse becomes particularly evident in the third act when Nina starts to question why her suitor is unwilling to make advances on her. The structure and eventual denouement suggest that modernity and the loss of tradition is ultimately what has sullied and distorted the tenderness of intimacy, reiterating the earlier subtext of Catholic guilt. Despite this, there is tenderness in the handling of unlikely human connection amidst the heavily storyboarded and aesthetically sumptuous visuals.
Regardless of worldview and perspective on the nature of progress — and resulting loss of superstition — Cuenca's film does manage to move and inspire reflection. It's just unfortunate that it's paired with Jean Charles Paugam's short film Ogre in this DVD package, seeing as the latter work merely reiterates a reductionist stance on the dread of difference. Bertrand Russell would surely have a field day with it.