Saturday, March 10, 2012

Available on DVD: “Octubre”

When you first meet Clemente, the humble, eventually humbled moneylender who becomes something of a reluctant hero in the unassuming, low-key charmer Octubre, he’s counting pennies instead of blessings. You can scarcely blame him. Unsmiling, seemingly friendless, he lives and works out of a run-down apartment in Lima, Peru, that — with its peeling wallpaper and badly scarred walls, and its passing parade of men and women hocking bits of their lives — makes a fitting setting for this hard stone of a man. The specter of his admired dead father hovers here, a twin perhaps to the images of Jesus seen everywhere else.

Whether this stubborn loner, played by Bruno Odar, could use some polishing isn’t a question. The writers and directors, the brothers Daniel and Diego Vega, efficiently sketch in the shabby details of Clemente’s life. Shooting with a digital camera that picks up every face and wall crack, and in surprisingly elegant widescreen, they suggest the entirety of Clemente’s mean life in a few, short, pitilessly comic scenes. This is a man who eats a dry egg sandwich with the same lack of animation and evident pleasure he evinces when frequenting a prostitute. For him eating and fornicating have the aspect of habits, something he does because they serve primal needs — both are sustenance for a body that could use a little soul.

Something happens — as it must even in slow-to-boil fictions like this one — in this case a baby and a woman, followed by an old man and an old woman. The infant, a girl later called Milagritos, materializes first, mewling in a plain straw basket left on Clemente’s bed. More inconvenienced and aggrieved than shocked, he initially tries to ignore the baby and then dump her with the police. "I saved her life," he claims at the precinct. A cop, after telling him that his name will end up in the newspapers, urges him to do the right thing. "It’s not my responsibility," Clemente insists without a twitch, his subsequent search for the mother — yet another prostitute — only affirming the depth of this lie.

Yet even as he looks for one woman, another materializes, Sofía (Gabriela Velásquez), a client who comes knocking at his door. She might as well have broken it down. She visits Clemente to pawn jewelry and, after being hired to stop the baby’s crying, ends up as his live-in nanny. A religious woman with other longings, Sofía creates a bridge to the movie’s title, the month in which the annual festival of the Lord of Miracles (Señor de los Milagros) takes place. A celebration dating back centuries, the fiesta unites thousands of penitents who flood the streets to follow an image that represents a Lima mural of Jesus that’s said to have escaped an earthquake unscathed. To walk in such a procession means to not walk alone.

It’s Sofía who calls the baby Milagritos, a baptism that confirms the child as the resident miracle, and who also fills the apartment with other people. Not much happens beyond passing and true moments of life. The Vegas, having pared their script to the bone — there are no speeches and not a line of exposition — hew to the less is more school of art-film realism. With a visual style and a deadpan humor that owes an obvious debt to the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (Drifting Clouds), they hold their shots long enough for you to scan details, look deep into faces and think on how little (or much) it takes to be happy. Here a painted Jesus hovers on a chipped wall, but it’s an unholy family of three that finds heaven on earth.

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