October is a time of hope and pageantry in Lima. Throngs of faithful join the procession celebrating the Lord of Miracles (or “Black Christ”) mural. Clemente is not one of them. Simply known as “the pawnbroker’s son,” he likes to keep things on a strictly cash basis. Obviously substandard father material, Clemente is naturally bit taken aback to find a little bundle of joy waiting for him in Daniel and Diego Vega’s Octubre (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Clemente lives his dreary life by choice. Loaning small sums to his economically disenfranchised neighbors at rates approaching usury, he allows himself only one real luxury: prostitutes. Though he publically denies it, Clemente never really seems to doubt the baby is his. However, he intends to return her to her mother of ill repute, as soon as he can find her. Until then, he hires Sofia, a devout client, to care for the foundling.
The middle-aged Sofia has given up on everything but hope. Yet, she starts to get ideas living in his Spartan flat, but Clemente is more concerned with passing off a counterfeit bill he mistakenly accepted. Frankly, he has plenty stashed in his oven, including the savings of Don Fico, a homeless eccentric planning smuggle his catatonic common-law wife out of Lima’s charity hospital.
It sounds like a horrendously contrived sitcom, but the Brothers Vega largely play it straight, maintaining a consistently dark and gritty tone throughout. This is a seedy, naturalistic environment, perfectly suited to their aloof protagonist. They do not even exploit the baby for shots of heartwarming cuteness. Ironically, Octubre’s subject matter could dissuade those who would most appreciate it, for fear of saccharine sweetness. Have no such concerns, this film is a perfectly respectable downer.
In a performance of great integrity, Bruno Odar conveys something tragically human in Clemente without making any concessions to likability. Likewise, Gabriela Velásquez takes a decidedly unglamorous turn as Sofia. They are both deliberately understated and completely believable as a result.
Though the Vegas present Catholicism in rather ambiguous contexts, they at least resist the temptation of gratuitous cheap shots. However, they never build up much momentum or achieve a payoff of appreciable substance. Essentially, they provide a showcase for their two unlikely leads. Cold but oddly affecting, Octubre screens next Saturday (4/2) at the Walter Reade and the following Sunday (4/3) at MoMA as part of the 2011 ND/NF.