Octubre, an assured first feature by two thirtysomething Peruvian brothers, Daniel and Diego Vega, is a more laconic (and consistently humorous) exploration of a potentially redemptive male midlife crisis. The movie, shown here last month as part of New Directors/New Films, is titled for the month when Lima’s true believers celebrate the Lord of Miracles, and employs a comic trope that has been a cinema staple since the nickelodeon: A single man of dubious character is unexpectedly lumbered with a helpless child.
In this case, the designated father, Clemente (Bruno Odar), is a sourly punctilious pawnbroker operating out of the Spartan dump he calls home who finds a newborn mysteriously deposited in his digs, possibly by one of the unglamorous hookers we’re privileged to watch him patronize. It’s not at all clear why Clemente feels obliged to keep the infant—other than to justify the movie, as well as scenes requiring him to mind his usury while inexplicably dandling a baby.
Octubre is stylized both in performance and presentation. A monument to undeserved vanity, expressionless Bruno Odar is forever patting his pompadour, and with her severe bangs, weak chin, and Bette Davis eyes, Gabriela Velásquez—as the spinster neighbor Sofía, whom Clemente hires as child-minder—has the appearance of a middle-aged kewpie doll. The compositions are highly deliberate in their symmetries; the tone is often uninflected to the point of absurdity. (Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki are obvious precedents.) In one deadpan scene, Sofía slips unwitting Clemente a love potion we’ve seen her concoct from her bodily fluids. Her ingenuity is as unexpected as the unsmiling moneylender’s hapless quest to solve the mystery of the baby’s origins.
There’s a message here regarding loneliness and emotional isolation, but the movie’s real miracle is that, however precious its premise, this slow-burning not-quite heart-warmer—a tour through a grim and grimy Lima where each location is shabbier than the last—never succumbs to cuteness.