The inaugural shot of Caníbal is suggestive of what is to follow. The frame is a long shot of a couple filling up at a gas station. Initially, you get the sense of voyeurism that will play throughout the film, but also, an impression of just how sophisticated is the director, Manuel Martín Cuenca. As the couple boards their wagon, a window rolls up in front of the camera placing the audience in Carlos’ point of view, making us the stalker. What ensues is a delicate and haunting love story, one that is unexpectedly touching.
Cuenca never misleads his audience about who or rather, what, Carlos (Antonio de la Torre) is—he is a killer, he is a cannibal. This part of Carlos’ persona is revealed right from the start, and done so in such an aesthetically pleasing manner that it is disturbing. Carlos is precise in his method of slaughter, from the capture down to the carefully wrapped and stored pounds of human flesh. He follows the couple and after running them off the road, drags the unidentified female’s body back to his remotely scenic cabin that rests atop the mountains. It’s terrifying how visually captivating is the first scene of Carlos hacking away at his victim’s body, because Cuenca never shows the blade making contact with the woman’s body; instead he pans to her lifeless feet, as blood trickles down the flat surface beneath.
After being witness to his murder, Cuenca focuses in on Carlos’ separate persona as a tailor, Grenada’s finest, in fact. His day-to-day routine is meticulous, mundane, and seemingly normal. The only hint of his sinister desires comes when he prepares his dinner, one strip of meat from whom we know it once belonged, which he carefully seasons and ritualistically consumes with a glass of red. Basically, Carlos leads a life of quiet isolation and the only consistent companion he has is Aurora, his assistant seamstress, with whom he shares an occasional meal or game of bingo.
So, the introverted tailor’s life remains contained until a new neighbor moves into the apartment above his. Alexandra (María Alfonsa Rosso) first appears in a frilly, plum-shaded coat over a vibrant red dress; it’s evident she will prove to be temptation for Carlos, who it appears would rather keep his life in Grenada separate from his sinister life outside. With her volatility and blatant sexuality (it is heavily suggested she prostitutes herself under the guise of a masseuse) Alexandra is trouble, and Carlos knows it. Desperately, he tries to keep her at an arms’ length but is inevitably roped into her less than orderly world.
Carlos does his best to control the situation, but after Alexandra goes missing (and we’re pretty certain why) her sister, Nina, also played by Rosso, turns up looking for her. Nina is unlike her sister in every way other than their obvious facial resemblance. Unlike Alexandra, Nina is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, and it appears she never got along well with her twin. Maybe it’s his guilt, but Carlos decides to help Nina, while scrupulously making sure she doesn’t discover his perversion.
Despite its grotesque choice of subject matter, Caníbal truly morphs into a love story once Nina appears, and Carlos’ affection for her is heartbreaking. He struggles with the idea of giving up his life as an ravenous loner and for a moment enjoys the concept of true intimacy. However, this is not a light-hearted movie and Carlos is a murderer; he cannot just become partner-of-the-year overnight, even if he’s in love and even if Nina returns his adoration. No, the ending could never be anything less than tragic for all of those involved. However, even though the outcome is bleak, this film is a cinematic treasure and like Carlos, Cuenca is fastidious in his composition and for that, every minute of Caníbal is a visual feast.