Reviewed by Dennis West and Joan M. West
Written, produced and directed by Daniel and Diego Vega; cinematography by Fergan Chávez-Ferrer; edited by Gianfranco Annichini; sound by Guillermo Palacios Pareja, Daniel Thiessen; art direction by Guillermo Palacios Pomareda; starring Bruno Odar, Gabriela Velásquez, Carlos Gasols. Color, 83 min. Spanish dialog with English subtitles. Distributed by New Yorker Films.
A properly dressed, middle-aged man straggles home at night, tail between his legs, after a painfully empty and lackluster rendezvous with a prostitute. Finding the main door to his lower-middle-class abode suspiciously ajar, he cautiously ventures into the kitchen and then opens the oven door to assure himself that his cash box is still there. As he visually verifies this hoard, an unusual noise emitting from the bedroom motivates him to grab a knife and carefully investigate—only to encounter a restive and plaintive baby in a basket. This soon-to-be recurring motif will be foregrounded in shot after shot as the infant comes to make ever new demands on this self-centered bachelor, whose lifestyle will be changing dramatically thanks to this newly ensconced baby on board. Thus the Peruvian Vega Brothers set in motion the delightfully insightful Octubre, their one-man version ofThree Men and a Cradle—a stonily deadpan comedy done up à la limeña and with great parsimony of style and characterization.
The protagonist, Clemente (Bruno Odar), is a well established pawnbroker/moneylender in the vast informal sector of Lima’s economy. Making a living working out of his home and “off the books” allows him to avoid government regulation and taxes while all the while providing a valuable service to nearby, needy neighbors, many of whom know him simply as the son of the moneylender. A snappy montage sequence of medium-distance shots offers up a parade of these cash-strapped neighbors. Perched uneasily on a low stool down the length of a bare table from Clemente, they proffer as security jewelry, watches, trophies—even 33rpm phonograph records. But having a burpy baby slung over his shoulder as he works closely examining valuables at the table—a loupe frequently jammed into his eye—cramps his style to the point where he distractedly accepts a large-denomination counterfeit bill. And the baby, it seems, cannot so easily be turned over to the proper authorities, since Clemente appears to be the father and the prostitute-mother has disappeared. So the unexpected arrival at his door of his middle-aged client Sofía is a godsend, since she actually knows how to change a diaper and otherwise care for an infant. And she is instantly employable.
Sofía (Gabriela Velásquez) lives modestly, neatly, and alone in a single-room, working-class domicile. This industrious woman derives a bit of off-the-books-income from baking and selling turrón de Doña Pepa, an anise-flavored pastry especially popular during the month-long October celebration of Nuestro Señor de los Milagros (Our Lord of Miracles), patron of Lima. A devotee of this icon, Sofía wears the typical purple habit and white mantilla that identify her as a member of the Sahumadoras, a distinctive guild of especially devout Catholic women who, with ornate silver incense burners, lead the way for the image’s October processions through the neighborhoods of Lima.
Although life seems to have passed her by, it has extinguished neither her compassion and empathy for others nor an apparent yearning to exchange her single life for one with more companionship. In hopes of winning prize money she routinely submits crucigramas (a Peruvian version of crossword puzzles) to weekly drawings, after offering the elderly Don Fico (Carlos Gasols) a few coins to fill them in for her. Pious but practical, Sofía prays for divine assistance when faced with circumstances beyond her control; but she does not shrink from nudging circumstances in a positive direction when possible. Discovering Clemente with an ill-cared-for and motherless infant arouses her charitable instinct and, she later realizes, might just be the life-altering opportunity she desires. Initially moving in with Clemente as a babysitter, she gradually begins to play out her dreamt-of role of wife and mother. The incommunicative, expressionless bachelor appreciates getting the pesky baby off his shoulder; but he maintains a seemingly impervious resistance to the notable domestic and feminine touches—such as a vase of bright flowers on the table—that Sofía brings into his drab, colorless life. Clemente remains intent on returning baby Milagritos (“Little Miracles”) to her still at-large mother and fobbing off the counterfeit bill onto some inattentive chump.
The Vega Brothers have created a strikingly spare and parsimonious realist style to render their central theme of loneliness. Few sounds—entirely ambient, such as the whistle of the barrio’s knife sharpener—break the silence where these characters reside. Fergan Chávez-Ferrer’s no-nonsense cinematography captures their solitude—particularly Clemente’s—with rigidly stationary camera setups in interior settings that seem to imprison characters within the walls of their surroundings and their minds. The studied composition of interior shots frequently stresses this aloneness, as when individuals are observed eating meager and lonesome at a table, or when the camera stares fixedly through the mirror at Clemente, who does not like what he inevitably sees reflected there. Editing patterns are abrupt, suggesting that characters simply plug along from here to there in their daily routines. These stylistic markers of loneliness are abandoned at a climactic moment in the narrative when a surprise birthday party is thrown for Clemente by his clients including Sofía, Don Fico, and the latter’s senior-citizen, mute girlfriend: in this familylike ritual, they gather round Clemente’s table for a photo opportunity while—as is de rigueur in Lima—“Happy Birthday” is sung in English.
October in Lima is a special time of year—“The Purple Month”—marked by fervent prayers and yearnings of many sorts, a time when limeños consider problems that are seemingly impossible to solve, short of a miracle. The ever-devout and believing Sofía finally does win prize money in a crucigrama drawing. But it is the diminutive Milagritos who seems—as her name implies—ever so much the tiny but real miracle that initiates the events that just may pry the adults around her out of their shells of loneliness. When, near the end of the narrative, she abruptly and mysteriously disappears from her basket and Clemente’s house, will he go looking for her?
Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste and Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho.
Joan M. West is a Professor Emerita (University of Idaho).
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3