In Peru there is a group of devotees who worship what they call The Lord of Miracles. It’s a mural, painted in the 17th century by an Angolan slave. Recovering from a grave illness, he found himself in a state of delirium and religious euphoria that inspired him to paint a mural of Christ on the cross, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, God, and the Holy Ghost. An earthquake one October in the 18th century left much of Lima destroyed, but the wall with the mural was miraculously undamaged. The painting earned its name and Peruvian Catholics began to worship it as El Señor de los Milagros—the Lord of Miracles.
Since then, every October in Lima processions of devotees that number in the hundreds of thousands march through the streets venerating the Lord of Miracles. These worshippers pray for the Señor to grant miracles in their lives, but they’re not asking for materialistic wishes, like winning a lottery. Rather, they traditionally ask for small miracles—that a baby be born healthy, that they might find love, or that they might simply live another year—the sort of small miracles that go unrecognized every day, but which are nonetheless essential to experiencing the fullness of life.
Peruvian filmmakers Daniel and Diego Vega use this holy month as a backdrop to tell the darkly comic and deeply human story of their debut feature Octubre, which won the Jury Prize in the Cannes Film Festival’s ‘‘Un Certain Regard’’ section in 2010. It’s a marvelous little film by two writer/directors with a natural eye for the human condition and a sense of deadpan black comedy that echoes filmmakers like Aki Kaurismäki or Fernando Eimbcke. It’s the sort of film that tells a humble story about ordinary people, but with a deeply-perceptive empathy that allows us to see the grand meanings that are often found in small gestures and minor events.
The main subject of Octubre is a man named Clemente (Bruno Odar). A small-time neighborhood moneylender and pawnbroker, Clemente is a dour, gravely serious man with no family, no close friends, and no hobbies aside from charging interest and joylessly patronizing aging prostitutes. Day in and day out, Clemente sees a procession of locals and neighbors who come to his spartan, depressing apartment to ask for loans. As they entreat him with small talk and stories about their trials and difficulties, he emotionlessly appraises their jewelry for collateral and grimly informs them of the terms for repayment. He seems to be in his 40s or 50s, and how long he has been existing detached from humanity in this state of bleak solitude, we can only guess.
His ordered life is interrupted when he finds a baby that has been left in his apartment, presumably a child he’s fathered with one of the many anonymous prostitutes that he frequents. As would be expected, cracks begin to appear in the emotional wall that he’s isolated himself behind for so long. He’s forced to deal with a bright newborn while still attempting to maintain the façade of gloomy, intimidating professionalism. When he begins searching for the baby’s mother, he employs a single woman to care for the child in his absences, a warmhearted but lonely devotee of the Lord of Miracles named Sofia (Gabriela Velásquez).
With the baby, Sofia, and the semi-homeless old man who is Sofia’s only friend all hanging around his house now, Clemente soon finds himself with an eccentric and decidedly nontraditional makeshift family crowding his once-isolated life, and he must consider tough questions that he had previously ignored. Should he continue to live a life devoid of emotion or attachment? Does he have the ability or desire to change?
Meanwhile, the lonely Sofia begins thinking she might have found the miracle she’s been praying for—a baby to mother and a man to take care of. Whether or not he wants to be taken care of, of course, is another question.
If the substance of the plot sounds like well-worn territory for a drama, it is. But the appeal of Octubre lies in the haunting, bittersweet tone that the Vega brothers are able to maintain throughout the film, giving them the ability to conjure up perfectly-observed little windows into the human condition out of simple dramatic ingredients. The muted color scheme, the weathered sets, and the measured, unhurried pacing all work together to give the dry comedy its offbeat bite, while the beautifully restrained performances from Odar and Velásquez play off of each other poignantly, imbuing the film with a touching sense of longing, world-weariness, and spiritual searching. Clemente and Sofia are both adrift in different ways, and their halting, all-too-human attempts to both change their lives and make sense of those changes are bitterly funny and sweetly sad.
Octubre is a remarkably assured debut by a pair of filmmakers with a distinctive voice and a refreshingly mature sense of the human experience, coming from a country not known for a particularly vibrant film scene. Despite its modest scope, it’s a disarmingly affecting and original story about learning to appreciate and embrace the minor miracles that make up the fabric everyday life.
The DVD release from New Yorker Films comes accompanied with an insightful interview with co-writer and co-director Daniel Vega, as well as the Vega brothers’ award-winning short film Inside Down Basement, which shows the genesis of their deadpan, pitch-black comedy style and takes the idea of ‘‘gallows humor’’ to its hilarious extreme. Octubre announces the arrival of a talented filmmaking team to the international scene, and will hopefully be the just first entry in a long and interesting career.