Cannibals in movies get lumped into two categories. There’s the maniacal Texas Chain Saw Massacre versions, and the refined and often charming Silence of the Lambs versions. It seems there’s no middle ground, especially if we are to sympathize with them, so director Manuel Marin Cuenca’s new film Cannibal goes all in for the latter version.
It’s not hard to see the influences of Demme’s thriller on Cannibal. Its human carnivore Carlos is as charming, polite and punctual as Dr. Lector and both films weave tailoring into their plots.
But Carlos is not as aggressively confident as Lector; there’s no humour or sarcasm there. Replacing it is a large insecurity. He’s frightened of anyone intruding on his life, and it’s clear his self-imposed isolation has gone on far too long.
He has a flat in the old Spanish town of Granada, across the street from his tailoring shop. He also owns a cabin in the mountains, where he hunts women, carves them up, and brings their meat home for quiet dinners alone. All this is in secret of course, until a new tenant Alex, and later her twin sister Nina, arrive and upset his ordered world.
Cuenca foregoes the cinematic dynamics of Lambs in favour of a measured and muted atmosphere; making Carlos’ sudden bouts of violence that much more brutal. In fact the film’s most disturbing moments come by us simply watching Carlos slowly and methodically, enjoy his meat. Helping the film is Antonio de la Torre’s performance. Despite the violence, he elicits an impressive amount of compassion for Carlos.
However it’s in Cuenca’s struggle the shake Cannibal free from its horror genre conventions that his film struggles to deliver.
It’s admirable that Cuenca and screenwriter Alejandro Hernandez reveal no history to Carlos. We’re told he conveniently has no parents, siblings or romantic interest. He has no friends, save an elderly seamstress he plays bingo with, and who knows nothing about his carnal appetites. By keeping him a cypher and empty character Cuenca and Hernandez make him a representative of us, but by doing this they muddle Carlos’ motivations.
It’s never clear exactly what it is about Nina that makes him fall in love; that allows him to reveal his venerability and ultimately put his secret monstrous life at risk. There’s no basis for comparison; how does she differ from all the other women? Since we know nothing about him, we’re left to wonder how she triggers this passion inside him.
She’s a beauty for his beast, and a genre convention in a film trying desperately not to be in one.
Though charming and well acted, increasing plot conventions pull the plot down. Cuenca doesn’t know what to do with his ending, and a violent confrontation betrays the calm, conversation-based tension he excelled at keeping through the film. It’s a silly and pat ending and it’s borrowed from a million thrillers made before.
Worse still is the film’s heavy religious symbolism. A subplot involving the re-weaving of a sacred robe and a scene of the Eucharist lay the comparisons on thick. Carlos is actually eating the body –we get it.
Cuenca’s film excels in atmosphere and performances and for certain it always entertains, but The Silence of the Lambs achieves its depth because it embraces its thriller and horror conventions; unlike Cannibal which constantly stunts itself because it’s always fighting against them.