It’s Hansel and Gretel, Captain, but not as we know it. This Mexican film is a visual experience, rather than a traditional narrative. It is set, like many of the films we have covered in this blog, after what appears to be an unexplained apocalypse. The “witch” is a crazy old guy named Mariano (Noé Hernández) who makes fuel out of old bread and trades it to persons unknown, through a hole in the wall, for food – mostly eggs and meat. Mariano is more Satan than witch.
He believes in chance, which, he says, is “the greatest criminal to ever roam the Earth.”
He is an aficionado of solitude, but when a young brother and sister, Lucio (Diego Gamaliel) and Fauna (María Evoli), appear in his abandoned apartment, he feeds them and puts them to work on ever more peculiar projects, such as a womb-like cocoon, made of wooden struts and vast amounts of packing tape.
Mariano receives some meat through the hole in the wall, and cooks it for his guests. But there’s a problem: Lucio is a vegetarian. Fauna tucks into her steak, rather reversing the normal situation where Hansel ignores Gretel’s warnings and eats the gingerbread. But Mariano has laced the meat with poison that, he says, the Nazis used to kill Jews. He won’t give Fauna the antidote until Lucio eats his meat.
So, it’s all about transgression, overcoming taboos, abandoning inhibitions, accepting pleasure rather than bothering with difficult questions of ethics. Mariano then decides that the kids need to have sex, and Lucio’s objection, that she is his sister, is dismissed:
“Do you think your cock gives a damn about her being your sister?”
So then there’s lots of incestuous sex, some of which is captured in lurid neon heat-map images. Mariano sings to them and masturbates as they perform for him, finally fainting as he ejaculates. Or dies, but is resurrected, because, as we know, the monster is never really gone.
The Brothers Grimm was never like this. Although who knows what siblings Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm got up to before they became philologists?
Anyway, we finally get to the cannibalism, about an hour into the film, as Mariano captures a soldier, tells him exactly what they have planned.
“We won’t kill you for money. We won’t kill you for an ideology. Or for the pleasure of watching you suffer. It’s not revenge for what you have done. We are neither avengers nor executioners.”
They sing the Mexican anthem and then slit his throat, catching his blood in a container. Various body parts are rendered into liquid and sealed into buckets, presumably to be traded through the hole in the wall.
Another girl comes into the maze looking for shelter, but is instead raped by Fauna and then Lucio.
Have we shattered every convention and broken every taboo yet?
Not quite. Mariano celebrates his naming day, a party in which all sorts of weirdos turn up and get it on. Mariano is to be the guest of honour, but also the main course.
“It is also the day I’ll live inside your squalid bodies. Don’t forget that the spirit does not reside in our flesh. Flesh is the spirit itself! So I kindly ask that all you lowlifes devour me until there is nothing left.”
There’s a twist at the end, but hey, enough spoilers. Go watch it – it’s only 80 minutes.
Catherine Bray in Variety called the movie a “joyously demented portrait of humanity.” She summarised the theme very well:
“Much of its most vivid imagery is purpose-built to interrogate the moral values society projects onto biological matter: human meat ground to a slush, slopping about in a bucket; a clitoral close-up; a pipette inserted casually into a hole in a boy’s temple; a sister’s gelatinous menses dripping into her brother’s mouth.”
The stubborn belief that humans, unlike other animals, have some sort of spirit that elevates us into the ranks of demi-gods and therefore justifies the havoc we unleash on the rest of nature has crumbled. As Mariano insists, flesh IS the spirit. We are meat, driven by our appetites. Our carefully crafted moral convictions can vanish like smoke in the face of hunger or desire.
Hansel and Gretel is a seminal cannibal text of course: innocents, abandoned for daring to expect to be fed, and left to face the voracious appetite of the outside world. Many of us probably first heard about cannibalism while sitting on a parent or relative or baby-sitter’s knee, crafting our next nightmare as they read us stories from the Brothers Grimm. Variants of the story are everywhere – a new movie is due soon (I’m looking out for it) called Gretel and Hansel. Here’s the trailer: