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Marcos Vela (Mario de la Rosa) isn’t a bad person, per se: he’s just a bored food critic bouncing from one “clandestine” eatery to the next, eating Kobe beef prepared by rich people in their luxurious apartment “restaurant” one night, tempting the fates with fugu the next. Problem is, Maros has seen it all before and there isn’t anything that really lights his fire anymore: after all, it’s just food, right? A chance encounter with a former lover (who also happens to be a gastro-journalist), however, sends Marcos on the hunt for a restaurant rumored to be serving a whole different kind of fare: human meat. In a world jaded to the nth degree, will Marcos trade his basic humanity in order to have the next “big experience” or are there some things that will always be off the menu?

These are the basic questions that Spanish writer-director Oscar Rojo works with in his sophomore feature, Omnivoros (2013), although there’s also quite a bit going on beneath the film’s surface, not least of which is the sneaky idea that this might actually be the ultimate statement about “vegetarian vs carnivore”: would you still eat your meat if it had a face? What if it had a face that looked suspiciously like yours? As with most films that delve into the subject of cannibalism, Omnivoros is quite often a very unpleasant experience: the violence is sudden and severe, often drifting dangerously close to torture-porn territory, but the themes are always interesting and there’s never the idea that Rojo is grinding our faces in the muck just for the hell of it. Despite the quality of the filmmaking on hand here, however, this is definitely a tough sell that will probably appeal only to the hardcore, iron-stomach contingent: all others are advised to proceed with extreme caution.

Structurally, Omnivoros alternates between Marcos investigating the mysterious “cannibal” restaurant and the actual cannibals, father Dimas (Fernando Albizu) and son Matarife (Paco Manzanedo), going about their grisly business. Matarife actually procures the “meat,” snatching terrified victims off the streets in shockingly matter-of-fact ways, while Dimas prepares the “food,” injecting his cooking with all the flair of a five-star Michelin chef: this is no Sawyer family BBQ, mind you, but the most highfalutin’ of highfalutin’ cuisine, the very epitome of gastronomy. These two storylines will eventually collide as Marcos finally tracks down the elusive restaurant and gets a first-person peek into the father and son in action.

As far as rationale or backstory goes, Omnivoros begins with a prologue (“Some years ago…,” we’re told) that shows how young Dimas came to find himself elbow-deep in the cannibal lifestyle (like any of the film’s “eating” scenes, it’s incredibly nasty and visceral), a lifestyle that he’s (obviously) passed on to his strange, animalistic son. While Dimas is the very picture of cool urbanity, looking nothing less than the “celebrity chef” that he appears to be, Matarife is a sweaty, goonish, hairy mess of a creature, the kind of individual who might prompt a biker gang to cross warily to the other side of the street. He’s a creep, in other words, the living embodiment of the “hidden” side of the meat industry: meat-eaters would love to think that they’re only dealing with Dimas but, in reality, Matarife is just as much a part of the equation, as slaughterhouse conditions and animal abuse allegations show us.

The film displays an odd, almost detached sense of morality that, at first, would appear to point towards an exceptionally detached, tuned-out society (which, to be honest, probably isn’t far from the truth). A “twist” in the film’s final quarter swings us back towards a more “accepted” view of the world, however, offering up a conclusion that could probably be seen as either victory or failure, depending on which side of the cleaver you’re on. From my perspective, I found the finale a bit too convenient, almost as if Rojo was worried that an extended trip to the dark side of humanity might be too hard to come back from: the “happy” ending here puts the film more in line with Hollywood-type films, although there’s just enough doubt in the final image to leave audiences wondering (which is also a trait of Hollywood horror films, to be honest).

All in all, Omnivoros is another of those films that’s easy to respect: everything about the filmmaking is top-notch, despite my general dislike of the back-and-forth between the two storylines and the fact that the film could, occasionally, get rather heavy-handed. That being said, I would be stretching the truth a bit if I said that I really liked it: the film was always cold and clinical and the gore scenes had a tendency to be both relentless and astoundingly gruesome (even for a cannibal film).

While Omnivoros isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, I still found myself dutifully impressed by Rojo’s abilities, both as writer and director, and found the film to be an easy, if queasy, watch. Even though I’ve been a meat-eater my whole life, I’m always open to an intelligent, well-made and thought-provoking argument from the other side. There’s a particularly sharp point made late in the film when one of the potential purchasers of Dimas’ “special” meat notes that the prices keep going up but that “it’s better to pay a little more than go on a vegetarian diet.” In one fell swoop, Rojo manages to take a bite out of not only the economics of food but the inherent philosophy behind it, an argument that could easily be expanded out to include “real food” vs “fast food.” Whether Rojo intended his film as a critique of carnivores or not, one thing remains clear: Omnivoros might just make you think twice about that steak you’re about to order.

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