“Beautiful” isn’t the first adjective one might think to apply to a film titled “Cannibal,” but it certainly applies to Manuel Martin Cuenca’s adaptation of a novel by Humberto Arenal. Working with cinematographer Pau Esteve Birba, the director fashions a chain of extraordinary wide-screen compositions, from the images set in Granada to others on highways and some in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains, where the title character, Carlos (Antonio de la Torre), who’s the Andalusian city’s foremost tailor, has a secluded cabin where he indulges his avocation.
That pastime involves carving the bodies of beautiful women whom he’s abducted into meat that he takes back to his apartment and consumes in solitary meals. The first episode in the film, including a protracted credit sequence, begins with a long, static shot, taken from a considerable distance, showing a couple (Delphine Tempels and Gregory Brossard) filling their car at a gas station and driving off. It’s then revealed that our viewpoint is that of Carlos, who’s been watching and waiting. He runs their car off the road and carries the girl back to his cabin, where he lays her nude form gently on a table before selecting his implements. All we see of what follows are her feet reacting as he strikes and a sliver of blood running down the table to the floor.
That discreet approach to the violence is typical of the picture, which will certainly disappoint anyone looking for horror-film gore. What Cuenca attempts instead is a character study of Carlos, whose life seems to be divided between his meticulous work with cloth and his equally meticulous work with corpses. His only relationships appear to be with his well-heeled customers and with Aurora (Maria Alfonsa Rosso), an elderly woman—apparently a seamstress—whom he visits for an occasional meal and evening of bingo.
Carlos’ solemn regimen is interrupted by the arrival of Alexandra (Olimpia Melinte), a smiling, sexy Romanian blonde, as his new upstairs neighbor. She gives massages in her apartment, and offers him one if he’ll help her to bring word of her services to his customers. She’s also prone to indulging in loud arguments with somebody Carlos can’t see and finding excuses for disturbing him at his place. When she opens his refrigerator and sees all the meat stacked there, only the sudden cut to black suggests the result.
But that’s only the beginning. Alexandra’s abrupt disappearance brings her sister Nina (also played by Melinte) from Saragossa, looking not only for her sibling but for the money which the two had been saving to send to their parents, but Alexandra had absconded with. Carlos is drawn to the quiet, restrained girl, and becomes her protector. Eventually he’ll invite her to a vacation in his cabin, where they enjoy both walks in the snow and conversations in front of a warm fire. Too much conversation, as it turns out.
“Cannibal” is gorgeous to look at from moment to moment, and it boasts a coolly methodical performance by de la Torre, as well as one by Melinte that distinguishes nicely between the two sisters. And yet the film ultimately fails to work except as an aesthetic exercise. A major problem is the extremely deliberate pace, which one assumes was intended to mesmerize but is more likely to irritate; the editing of Angel Hernandez Zoido seems designed not so much to create a mood of unease as to allow us to savor the individual images, with their painterly touches of color, light and shadow.
Even more fundamentally, however, the film fails as a character study because it never manages to disclose Carlos’ internal life. He remains an opaque, mysterious person; even as de la Torre succeeds in encouraging a degree of sympathy for him, there’s no Norman Bates-style revelation at the close, merely an admission that he does what he does to women because he desires them. One senses that Cuenca intends to suggest something deeper in the Catholic elements that are practically obligatory in a Spanish film. A scene of the consecration of the host at Mass, with a priest intoning “Take and eat, this is my body,” has an obvious connection with Carlos’ mealtime habits. But another plot thread, involving his copying a venerated cloak so that his replica can be used in the outdoor religious festival with which the film closes, is clearly meant to contribute to our understanding of his motives, but the meaning is elusive, unless it’s something as simplistic as the notion that he hides his true self under the false appearance of respectability.
So “Cannibal” engages the eye while shortchanging the mind. (The ear is much less attended to: the film is without music, saving the classical music broadcasts on the radio in Carlos’ workshop.) In the end its marvelously crafted images don’t give you enough to chew on—intellectually, of course.