Octubre: Cannes Film Fest Winner

Year after year we go to Cannes Film Fest to see great art films, and to make discoveries of young, fresh talent.  Last year, we were all impressed with the impressive feature debut from brothers Daniel and Diego Vega, “Octubre,”  a character study of a Lima loan shark. With methodical filmmaking and a mature, understated performance by Bruno Odar as Clemente, the loan shark, it is easy to see why this film won the Jury Prize of the Certain Regard series.  The entrepreneurial New Yorker will release the film next month in a platform mode.

 

Clemente leads a somber life: loaning money, collecting payments, and frequenting aging prostitutes, all in downtrodden Lima neighborhoods. We do not see any signs of him caring for anyone or anything. He is a man already, for whatever reason, dead to the world.

 

The Vega brothers are strong in making Clemente’s world tangible. All the details are here, from the box that he hides all his money in to the little shrine his neighbor Sofia (Gabriela Velasquez) makes for Jesus Christ.

 

There is a sharp montage sequence introducing Clemente’s work, in which various neighbors come to his apartment to pawn items, from jewelry to toasters. One woman who wants to take out a large loan tells him, “It’s not for gambling this time, I swear.” He has no reaction.

 

We can easily imagine that Clemente, who has no close relationships to speak of, has been living this way for many years and will continue doing so, probably for the rest of his life. But things are about to change for this loan shark—in a big way.

 

Clemente returns home one night to find his place has been broken into. Nothing has been stolen, however. A woman, one of the prostitutes he knows well, has left a baby for him and just disappeared into the night.

 

The baby, apparently Clemente’s own, is unbelievably cute. Will having this new responsibility of caring for this precious child change him, open him up? And if so, how much?

 

This is the central question of “Octubre,” and it is not clear which way Clemente is going to go until very near the end of the film. There is some suspense, then, about this film itself: is it going to relay a hopeful message in the end or leave us in bleakness?

 

Odar’s performance is so effective because it similarly keeps us on our toes. We are left to guess whether this man has any heart at all. There is something about him that says yes, but it is not in anything he says or does.

 

Clemente knows he needs help taking care of the baby, so he enlists one of his customers from the neighborhood, the pious Sofia, to be a temporary mom. Sofia soon revolutionizes the apartment: cooking for Clemente, sleeping in his bed and trying to give him hand jobs, and allowing an elderly homeless customer, Don Fico (Carlos Gasols), to crash there as well.

 

Even Don Fico’s comatose, wheelchair-bound girlfriend eventually winds up with them. The Vega brothers’ dry humor reaches its peak when this family of odds and ends has a birthday party for the less-than-enthused Clemente, who misses his old life and having the apartment to himself.

 

Sofia is driving all of this, determined, it would seem, to become Clemente’s wife and for them to raise the child together. But he of course has no interest in being domesticated by anybody and instead starts making his plans to rid himself of Sofia and the baby.

 

One of Clemente’s prostitutes speaks as his conscience when he, for the first time, experiences impotence: “You can’t stay the same way your whole life,” she tells him matter-of-factly.

 

The Vega brothers evidence much confidence in their debut, especially with their pacing. For most younger directors, it is a scary prospect to try something with such a slow pace like this, something that almost imperceptibly builds toward a destination.

 

The only thing stopping the Vegas from completely hitting this one out of the ballpark is that “Octubre” builds and builds but in the end slightly peters out. Although this may be their artistic objective, we never get to a moment of real emotion or any transcendent moment—one that could add a new level of meaning to all that we have seen of Clemente’s unenviable life. In other words, “Octubre” has an overall flat quality that it never quite moves past. The ending is interesting, not necessarily what we would have expected, but somehow not so surprising either.

 

The Vega brothers are helped tremendously in their tight style of filmmaking by superior cinematography from Fergan Chavez-Ferrer, who does not waste a single shot in this picture. He captures well Lima’s drab beauty, especially in the film’s many interiors. A couple of sequences of processions celebrating the Lord of Miracles, in which thousands of citizens wearing purple tunics follow an image of Christ through the streets, are also beautifully shot. The film’s title comes from this annual celebration, which always takes place in October, known as the “purple month” in Lima.

 

Cast

 

Clemente – Bruno Odar

Sofia – Gabriela Velasquez

Don Fico – Carlos Gasols

 

Credits

 

A New Yorker Films release.

Directed, written, and produced by Daniel Vega and Diego Vega.

Cinematography, Fergan Chavez-Ferrer.

Editing, Gianfranco Annichini.

Original music, Oscar Camacho.

 

Running time: 83 minutes.