Octubre

04/08/2012

Peru / 2010 / Spanish

Directed by Daniel & Diego Vega

With Bruno Odar, Gabriela Velásquez, Carlos Gassols

Still from 'Octubre'In the deep trough of mid-life, Clemente faces all challenges, from the large to the trivial, with a cool hostility that seems perfectly apt for one who wiles away most of his hours undisturbed by other people. The only guests he welcomes into his gray, corroding ground floor apartment are the hard-luck cases who want to borrow money from him. The rest of the time is spent in a solitary vortex, as he watches television, consumes the necessary calories, and visits his favorite brothel. One day he finds himself the owner of a baby girl, left in his apartment in a basket, apparently by a prostitute he knows. Uncertain what to do, he cares for the child, holding it until it stops crying, before placing it gently back in its basket to sleep. Outside of Clemente’s bleak (and now partly interrupted) patterns, we meet two other characters: Sofía, his neighbor who also lives alone and cooks nougat that is sold at a local newsstand, and Don Fico, an aged homeless man who completes people’s lotto-crosswords for small commissions.

The baby’s cries irritate and humiliate Clemente. His face droops with sleeplessness, showing what he is going through to care for this child. While he insists to anyone who asks that he rescued the child from abandonment, his habit of visiting prostitutes is well-known, however, so no one seems the least surprised at what has befallen him. When Sofía hears the baby crying, she forces her way into the apartment and tells him that she will work for him as a nanny. While Clemente could easily just foist the baby upon her – she would be happy to oblige him – he keeps both of them close. There is a gratitude behind his consistently surly exterior that does not escape its sealed confines. But it is there nonetheless. His nighttime mission to seek out the Cajamarquina, the woman who left the baby, becomes an evasive target, as the misleading directions for which he pays different prostitutes he knows leaves him feeling used, and sensing the raw void that exists where he thought there were emotional connections. He continues to go to the brothel, of course, but complains bitterly about being exploited, which is amusing, considering whom he is talking to.

Still from 'Octubre'There is something strikingly parallel about the things that Sofía and Don Fico are both trying to negotiate; they want to surmount the inescapable hillocks that stand between themselves and changed lives. Their respective approaches to life’s complexities are on the simplest terms, as they defy sense and fortune to realize, or perhaps recapture an ideal. They also seem to be guided by selfless love, both of them contrasting with – rather than being antithetical to – Clemente’s loveless selflessness. Those two characters are not the only ones entering the decrepitude of his life and home seeking assistance, and all of them together represent the ups and downs, the rocks and hard places of the outside world against which he has so meticulously safeguarded himself.

Essentially the old man wants to leave the city, but he cannot do it without first bringing his lady friend, immobile and near death, into his care. He is incomplete without her, and a late-life transformation would be meaningless if she were not there with him. So he gradually sets about acquiring the tools to finish his mission – springing her from the hospital, getting bus tickets, taking back his savings from Clemente. It all seems simple, but he comes from a class of people who do not know simplicity, and yet know only simplicity. Sofía is also on a piecemeal quest, becoming a part of the ad-hoc family that has begun to form in Clemente’s home and working to turn it into something genuine. He deflects, she pursues; she is one of those women who stick to gruffness as the soft half of velcro.

Clemente’s situation proves that one does not have to live large to have all of one’s human interactions be lubricated (or stilted) by the presence of money. You can live in squalor and still be isolated by what little wealth you have, and that is a symptom of your attitude toward humanity. Everything about him represents the cold, impersonal, unforgiving world of money boiled to dryness, at which point it is permanently carbonized onto one’s personality, inseparable. He lends, buys, sells, prospects, evaluates, without even the thrill of acquisition or bright hopes for what he will one day be able to afford. His apartment is empty of all but the most rudimentary things, even color is at a premium.

Still from 'Octubre'In one respect he was born and raised to be like this, being the son of a pawnbroker. But at the same time his father was evidently a loved and respected member of the community, whereas Clemente slips through it like a ghost. More than having just made a career that revolves around objects and their worth (the grand result of which sits in a box that he has ferreted away beneath his oven), he has built a life in such a way – the only thing that is possibly sadder and more contemptuous. He shares his bed with Sofía, whose generous and genuinely physical advances he shuns. At the same time he still frequents the same old house of prostitution he has been for so long, preferring the emotional buffer of the transaction to the wide-open tracts of mutual feeling.

The Vega brothers often return to shots of one or other of the characters in sexual or possibly sexual positions, sweating, heaving – but being the only person in the frame, the lack of a visible partner accentuating the solitude of deriving pleasure. Sex is here perfunctory, but bereft of any discernible function. It has an autumnal blankness, like a habit that continues without memory of what it once provided. But fleeting scraps of tenderness are stuck to the clammy moisture of these scenes, such as the prostitute kissing him on the cheek before he leaves. Sofía dips a pair of her urine-tinged panties into the pitcher on the table and, later that evening, watches him as he drinks a glass of the water. It seems both an act of revenge on her part, because he refuses her and the baby, and also a sort of imposed, surreptitious intimacy. It is bizarrely loving. If he will have nothing to do with her body, she will force him to accept it unwittingly.

The film does little to reconcile its religious sheen – the sepulchral hush of the rough-carved apartment, the middle-aged and virginal Sofía taking on the role of the mother – with the overt, very public Christianity shown in the shots of the Lord of Miracles parade moving through the streets. It seems almost as if the latter is being seen at a remove from its symbolic content, providing more of a social backdrop for the story, a tide of ceaseless mixing and matching, than some suggestion of a biblical parallel. The parade encompasses both the flashy exterior effects that Jesus assumes in Latin America (the razzle-dazzle), and the more earthy origins to which he appeals. It is the sparks and the shadows, the canopy over everything and the little glow of the votive shrine adorning the prostitute’s blank wall. In spite of his saturnine demeanor, Clemente is just as desperate as the people he serves. He is simply one wrung above them on the power-scaffold of their society, perhaps not even. When one man, a humble old carpenter, keeps delaying paying him back for a loan, the money-lender’s impotent frustration disperses any notion of him having the least bit of control or recourse.

Still from 'Octubre'As Clemente leaves one woman’s bedroom, she says something to the effect of, “we all have to change sometime.” For many people, change is something that happens in swoops and shelves, imposed by arbitrary fate – not always a single, conscious step taken. The situation that has gradually collected around the man’s apartment is an age-old telling of one character who is resistant to change and another who is bent on bringing it about, both of whose delusional dedication causes them to converge and stick fast to one another. This is not the sit-com polarity that would suggest that they will, by default, do each other some good. But they are both so out of touch that they also may not be able to harm one another, either. In a way their trembling, mutual opposition helps them achieve a grimly sublime balance. Like the many ramshackle miracles life offers on a daily basis, it will, with any luck, be recognized and valued as such.

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