At the risk of bulling through the land of broad generalizations, there is one innate difference between European film and American film. American film focuses on escapism, the active desertion of real life. European film, on the other hand, actively celebrates reality; basking in the banality and hidden beauty of physical existence. Take a film about a sociopath who dabbles in cannibalism, in the US this would most likely involve an inbred family who consider chainsaws as family. All of it amplified and less than lifelike. In Europe, though, you’re more likely to find the same subject matter portrayed as a lonely tailor who happens to kill and eat women in his spare time, with a major focus on the lonely tailor part of his life.
In Manuel Martin Cuenca’s film, Cannibal, we get just that. A story about a man’s life, from his daily routine to more of his daily routine, and then a bit of murder and human entree based dinners. There is something to be said of allowing the horrific to seethe on screen, to grow and breathe in front of the audiences eyes. The realism of the story, and of the man, adds a layer of clinical coldness to the murdering part of his psyche. To use the term procedural with murder and cannibalism seems a stretch, but in this film it seems just that. His actions are so slow and intentional throughout the film it becomes nearly impossible to differentiate the moments of cutting cloth with the moments of cutting women. And once the credits roll, one can’t help but feel that that lack of differentiation is the most disturbing trick that Cuenca has pulled on us all.
The downside to that though is that the film moves so slowly it feels almost lifeless. Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “Drama is life with all the dull bits cut out.” Cannibal, though, doesn’t seem to interested in cutting any of the dull bits out. From work, to dinner, to simply hanging out, this film contains it all; repeatedly. While this does allow the film and its characters to stew, which in turn allows the atrocities to seem a bit less atrocious, it also makes it a challenge to remain engaged in. The intent, which is relatively successful, is to desensitize the audience to the horror of what our protagonist does. The side effect, though, is that it desensitizes the audience to the entire story. Any engagement at all is a challenge when a large portion of your film is filled with chores.
So, while Cuenca’s assumed intent of demystifying the boogeyman and, by extension, the crimes he commits is successful, one can’t help but feel he may have just gone a bit too far in his execution. Slow burn is a narrative style that can be incredibly effective, allowing characters to build while the eventual dread to do the same. But slow burn is also a fine line to walk. It is far too easy to slip into the abyss of boredom. The European tendency to examine life has made for some amazing moments in cinematic history, and Cannibal tries its damnedest to follow in that tradition. The trouble is that it examines for just a bit too long, making for a film that feels like a scientific study instead of an emotional journey.