By Dave Wilson | May 6, 2011
Directors: Daniel Vega Vidal, Diego Vega Vidal
Writers: Daniel Vega Vidal, Diego Vega Vidal
Starring: Bruno Odar, Gabriela Velásquez, Carlos Gassols, María Carbajal
Octubre takes the risk of placing at its center a character who is stubbornly passive and almost totally inexpressive. Set in Lima, Peru during the incense haze and sweeping processions of the annual Lord of Miracles festival, the film tells the story of a cold and emotionally inert pawnbroker named Clemente (Bruno Odar), who lives alone in a rundown apartment with cracked walls and peeling wallpaper and maintains a modest business lending small amounts of cash to everyday people facing hard times. For Clemente, life is a series of transactions, exchanges, barters, and cons. He makes his loans, collects the interest, and then when the workday is done, visits prostitutes in ramshackle brothels, leaves his cash behind, and walks back into the night. This is really the extent of his contact with other people. He has no entanglements. You get the sense that very few words pass his lips during the average day.
Directors Daniel and Diego Vega Vidal, who also penned the script, detail Clemente’s life and habits in a few quick strokes with the remarkable economy you would expect to find in a story by Chekhov. We know everything there is to know about Clemente, and then all at once, he is beset with entanglements when he comes home late one night to find that his door has been forced open. Nothing is missing, but inexplicably, someone has left behind a baby girl in a basket. Without a word, without batting an eye, Clemente resigns himself to a long, bleary-eyed night, swinging the basket back and forth to sooth the crying child.
The child, we soon learn, is Clemente’s, the result of one his trysts with a whore. Turned away by the police and told to take responsibility for the child, Clemente embarks on a meandering, half-hearted quest to find the child’s mother. In the meantime, he keeps the child and hires one of his clients, a local woman named Sofia (Gabriela Velásquez), to care for her. First the child appears in his life and in his home, and then Sofia, who, like Clemente, lives alone and leads a solitary life. Unlike Clemente, she longs for change and predicates her existence upon hope, lighting candles, playing the lottery, and joining the throngs who march through the streets, praying for miracles and an end to suffering. She may be weary like Clemente, but she is expressive, caring, and willing to make sacrifices. She moves into Clemente’s house, sleeps on his sofa, and spends her hours taking care of the baby girl Clemente hopes to get rid of. She rearranges furniture, scolds him about the hours he keeps, and makes it plain that she could resign herself to being his wife in every way.
And so quietly, deceptively, and artfully, the film exchanges its focus on Clemente and his quest to find the child’s mother for a story about the formation of a family, with Clemente, Sofia, and the child at its center. Sofia, in fact, has entanglements and connections in the world and she’s the type of woman who seeks complications and willingly makes sacrifices for the people she cares for. She’s friendly with an old retiree named Don Fico (Carlos Gassols), a client of Clemente’s who lives on the streets and hopes to reunite with his ailing girlfriend, who’s bedridden and comatose at the local hospital. Soon the empty apartment with the creaking floors and peeling paper is full of life, circulating around Clemente, trying to draw him in.
There is an elegance and symmetry to the world and themes at the heart of this film, despite the squalor it often depicts. Life is a series of transactions and small cons for Clemente, Sofia, and Don Fico. There is a complicated web of contracts and financial arrangements connecting the three main characters to each other and to everyone else in their life. Sofia pays Don Fico to complete the daily lottery puzzles for her. Don Fico safeguards his pension money with Clemente, who is “better than a bank.” And Clemente, of course, is accustomed to paying every woman in his life for services rendered.
In the average, color-by-numbers film, Clemente would warm up to these people by film’s end and to the domestic life settling in around him. He would come to life. At the extreme end of this continuum, Hollywood would happily deliver some trite arc about a man who learns that the true meaning of life is in the messiness of emotional entanglements. But this is not really the trajectory we’re on in Octubre. While I certainly don’t long for the trite or formulaic, I really feel that this film loses any emotional impact that it might have had by saddling us with a character who is not only stubborn and passive, but is almost completely static and incapable of change. In the end, Clemente is something like a black hole, who sweeps all of these other much more interesting people into his core, while remaining forever immobile. While I found much to admire about this film, I’m frankly baffled by this passive character and even by actor Bruno Odar’s performance. Odar wears the same grimace and furrowed brow no matter what circumstance Clemente is in.
I understand that Sofia and Don Fico stand in opposition to Clemente. They live, and love, and willingly accept hardship because they care more about other people than protecting their own habits and routines. Still, actress Gabriela Velásquez invests the character of Sofia with so much life, that I knew exactly where she came from—the dead husband, the son who left her behind—all of these things are left unspoken, but I can fill them in for myself because that’s the kind of depth Velásquez brings to the role. The history is there, the sorrow is there, the yearning is there–in every glance and gesture, and in the way she carries herself as she goes about her day.
In many ways, Octubre comes across as a character sketch rather than a fully articulated story. I can accept this. But I can’t help thinking that the Brothers Vega Vidal chose the wrong character to follow. Perhaps a better sketch, and a richer, more nuanced film lies somewhere within Sofia’s story.