The fine reviewer for The Village Voice, J. Hoberman, sees Octubre as an “exploration of a potentially redemptive male midlife crisis.”
There is something to this view, of course. Surely many people have found themselves one day at the dining room table wondering how they ended up in a family accreted by the addition of a spouse here and a child there, with strange old people at the table, too, as if they belonged there.
But Octubre aims at a broader, more fundamental truth about the human condition than mid-life crises, which are probably better explored when they happen to otherwise prosperous and successful people. The marginal existences in Octubre do not allow characters the luxury of sudden disillusionment.
In Octubre, human relationships arise out of emotional and economic necessity, not out of desire. Every human interaction has a price, obvious enough to the central character (a casual pawnbroker), and the price is often relatively arbitrary and unclear. How much do I owe you, Sofia asks Don Fico, after he prepares a lottery-like newspaper contest entry for her. How much should a repairman get? How much does a prostitute charge for both sex and information about another prostitute’s whereabouts? Similar questions recur often.
Even in poverty, even when the cash nexus marks human relationships, there are no villains in this film. Despite petty attempts to wheedle money or otherwise manipulate other people, functioning human relationships are reluctantly and sometimes accidentally formed out of economic imperatives. The human condition. Clemente, for all his sullen passivity and his seeming power over desperate borrowers, is defenseless when life wedges into his squalid apartment and life. His life, not just his apartment, is taken over by squatters.
In Octubre, all human relationships have a cash basis. This sets up the central symbol of Clemente’s stalled life: a flimsy, tattered, counterfeit 200 nuevo sol bill. Accepting the phony bill in a moment of distraction, Clemente cannot pass it off on anyone else. People cannot live on inauthenticity forever.
His unlikely counterpart in what might almost be called a romance, in its own pathetic way, Sophia, is given to superstition and religion, while Clemente is driven by economics.
We are surprised that a thief stealing a wheelchair turns out to be sympathetic, as Don Fico steals it in order to spirit his comatose wife out of Lima toward what he imagines might be a better life. He has to bribe an accomplice to manage the theft, and then bribe a hospital nurse to manage as escape. Ironically, this old man’s laboriously accumulated savings are the funds that Clemente lends out as a pawnbroker, the money simultaneously exploiting and rescuing the desperate wretches who pawn items.
On Clemente’s birthday, a bizarre parody of a family photograph shows the central unfortunates who have been brought together by necessity, and held together by a little reluctant decency. Clemente and Sophia are like husband and wife, there’s the baby, and two grandparent-like figures, Fico and his comatose girlfriend. This grotesque variant of smiling family photos is one of several beautifully framed scenes.
If you have been waiting for cinematic sex scenes with a purpose other than satisfying our voyeurism, Octobre is for you. Clemente’s grim interactions with several prostitutes, like Sophia’s trickery with Clemente, will cure prurience.
Critics have called Octubre a comedy, and it is, although the comedy is mildly grotesque, understated, dark, and ironic. Critics have called Octubre slow, and it is, although it is pleasantly slow, like the largo movement in a string quartet. Critics have noted that Octubre is often beautifully shot, and it is, successfully presenting muted colors and shabby interiors in a painterly way. Hollywood does not know how to achieve this, and has forgotten how to make a film in which necessity so dominates free will.
One critic has called Octubre “a blasé work of social observation, a trifle of a story with fuzzy characters and weak political, social, and moral dimensions, notable only for its ostentatious framing of its proletarian characters’ lives using the style of more accomplished filmmakers.” Don’t believe a word of it. Octubre is a carefully constructed and beautifully filmed work of social and moral observation. The final scene is richly ambiguous, a fine ending to a fine film. Don’t look for this film at your local Cineplex.