In the new Spanish movie Cannibal, which opens Friday, director Manuel Martín Cuenca's approach to his subject matter is so austere it’s almost anorexic. Where a horror film or gross-out comedy might apply blood-drenched gluttony to scenes of butchery and flesh-eating, Cuenca opts for one quiet — and quietly dazzling — sequence involving a nude woman splayed on a table, followed by the off-screen thwack of a hatchet and then a single rivulet of blood spilling into a metal pan. (That sound also off-screen, an auditory suggestion of this killer’s seasoned professionalism).
This less-is-more strategy continues through the film’s first fifteen minutes or so, which also involves the refrigeration, frying and consumption of body parts, and a symbolic cleansing in a car wash. We also learn our protagonist is an old-school tailor, equally skilled at manipulating a large pair of fabric scissors as he is with a meat cleaver. He and the milieu of his existence are rendered with impeccable taste, clarity and calm. For a cannibal, he is especially appealing and fastidious.
Carlos is his name. He lives in Granada, in an apartment building near his one-man shop. He appears to have no interests outside of sewing suits and murdering for his supper. He is both sexually and religiously disturbed, somehow having conflated the ritual of communion with the routine eating of a fellow human. There is an older woman whom we mistake for his mother, but who turns out to be someone more mysterious, a confessor perhaps, or at least someone who tolerates Carlos’s special dietary needs. At any rate, Carlos can’t help attracting the attention of beautiful young women, even if he isn’t hungry. An upstairs neighbor comes on to him, and, after he dispenses with her (again, off-camera), the woman’s equally interested sister, Nina, shows up. Their relationship deepens, with hints of Carlos warming to the idea that he could love a woman without having to first sauté her.
After its hypnotic, exquisitely designed beginning, Cannibal advances at an admirably restrained but maddeningly stringent pace. Cuenca’s desire to scrub the film of any Jeffrey Dahmer-like tendencies — except for a couple of glimpses into Carlos’s well-stocked fridge — forces us to consider the possibility that the love of a good woman, as opposed to her flavorful thighs, will rehabilitate our sick hero.
There are a few subtle, humorous moments, which suggest a movie that could have been a bit lighter on its feet. But we are mostly kept waiting, nodding in appreciation of the filmmaker’s low boil technique while idly tapping our fingers at the dinner table, waiting for a main course that arrives fatally underdone.
This post originally appear on The Restless Critic.