Set in a barrio of Lima, Peru, Daniel and Diego Vega's Octubre, opening in limited release Friday (5/6/11), has a Jim Jarmusch quality of deadpan wit and cinematic restraint.
Not a lot happens in Octubre - and yet lives change. Worlds change.
The film centers on Clemente (Bruno Odar), a moneylender with strict rules and what appears to be a joyless and solitary existence. He opens up shop to his customers, then sits there stonily as they tell their story of why they need money (not that he cares). He sets his terms, pockets their collateral - and heads off to the brothel.
He doesn't derive much apparent joy from his encounters with prostitutes. It looks like as much of a job for him as for them. Then he eats by himself and heads for home. Not much of a life.
But he returns home one day to find a baby has been left in his spare, cell-like apartment. He gradually deduces that it was left there by one of the prostitutes he frequents. All of his efforts to track her down, however, are fruitless.
His new responsibility seems ready to overwhelm him. He is distracted while working, kept up at night and otherwise wholly unprepared to be a parent. He eventually makes a deal with a neighbor, Sofia (Gabriela Velasquez), to forgive part of her debt in exchange for her assuming childcare duties.
Sofia immediately sees this trio - herself, Clemente and the baby - as a potential family unit. But Clemente is having none of it. He wants Sofia strictly as an employee, a borrower working off debt. And he wants to find the hooker who left the baby behind so he can return it - but she's proving elusive.
There are low-key subplots as well. One involves a homeless man trying to spring his dying wife from a hospital. The other involves the distracted Clemente, who accepts a counterfeit bill, then spends the rest of the film trying unsuccessfully to use it.
Clemente's world changes even as he resists the appeal of the baby and Sofia, in this measured, extremely careful film. The camera rarely moves - almost as little as Clemente's face. Sofia is more expressive, a woman looking to round out her existence with the child she never had. Her route is prayer; even as a religious festival goes on in the streets, she is putting on a shawl and joining the processions, importuning Our Lord of Miracles - and eventually taking matters into her own hands.
The Vega brothers take a minimalist approach, yet inject a note of magic realism at the end that gives the story a sudden, intriguing twist. Their cast is low-key and natural, rarely raising their voices or otherwise raising the temperature of the film. Yet there's something bubbling under the surface that makes the simple story of Octubre mystifying and beguiling, without every coming right out and showing you why.