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Small Change

An uninvited guest upends Octubre’s low-rent world

Two Peruvian brothers, Daniel and Diego Vega are the authors of Octubre, a small deliberate film with a kind of offbeat solemnity. Their first feature, it won the Special Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, and has been compared to recent Argentine and Uruguayan films (specifically, Whisky and The Custodian), as well as being influenced by the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki. The sly, poky shaggy-doggedness of the story revolves around a grim-faced, not-too-amiable moneylender named Clemente (Bruno Odar), who lives and works in a run-down quarter of Lima. The son of a much more prominent and respected moneylender, Clemente conducts his business across a table in the bare storefront of his shabby but orderly bachelor digs. In a series of mordantly comic and visually terse duets, he communicates with his neighbors by lending them small amounts of money in mini-dramas full of embarrassment and jokey anxiety on the part of the borrowers. Clemente is as impassive in his business dealings as he is in his sex life, which consists of perfunctory visits to prostitutes, of the Wham-Bam Gracias Señora variety.

His well-ordered life is irrevocably altered when he comes home one day to find the front door ajar. Immediately suspecting theft, he rushes to his strongbox, but the jewels and money are untouched. Another look around reveals a basket containing a baby, deposited by one of the many hookers he has patronized. What to do with the squalling infant? Clemente finds himself at wit’s end as he scours the city, frantically trying to find the mother. When he considers abandoning the child—it turns out to be a girl—he is told he can either give it up for adoption or be a man and take responsibility for it. (Meanwhile, his geriatric father, in charming counterpoint to his miserly son, is sticking by his lady love, who is now wordless and helpless on a respirator in a local nursing home.)

Enter Sofia (Gabriela Velásquez), a very religious spinster neighbor and sometime borrower who knows immediately how to care for the baby—and not incidentally, finds Clemente’s apartment larger and better furnished than her own. She makes herself first valuable, then indispensable, by performing a variety of tasks: cooking, cleaning, interpreting the baby’s cries. She moves in, and eventually allows Clemente to make love to her.

It is October, the “purple month,” when the city lights up with processions celebrating the Lord of Miracles. The movie is punctuated by such demonstrations of worship, and the mysticism and prayers extend to the lottery, an equally important local religion that drives a number of clients to Clemente’s door.

Along with the gravitational pull of these crowds toward some mystical hope, Clemente, too, is drawn stubbornly, grudgingly, almost in spite of himself, into the shared life. First, in an empty boast, he claims to one and all that he has “saved the baby’s life,” but this obvious attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of the community and earn some of the status his father had enjoyed gradually becomes true. And Sofia’s desire for him and the baby becomes the tiny miracle that wears him down, then lifts him up. Not too high, mind you. No hosannas here. If he’s not quite the cheap bastard he has always been, he’s not exactly starting a bucket list either.

There’s a great deal of feeling in the style of the film, attributable to the carefully measured and unsentimental tone, and to the spare cinematography of Fergan Chavez-Ferrer. The subdued lighting, the beautifully muted monochromatic sets, and Odar’s restrained performance give the film its idiosyncratic mixture of dry humor and slow-burn spirituality. Disregarding the signposts of melodrama and true to the low-key idiom and atmosphere of this small working-class neighborhood, the Vega Brothers have made a film that remains somewhat, even proudly, mystifying and opaque. Yet it is through its loving attentiveness to words and silences that the movie draws us closer and closer into its universal theme.