Lima is in the grip of an apocalypse and a deadly epidemic is debilitating the population. Eusebio (Víctor Prada) spends his days cleaning up the remains of the dying, desensitised to the death and decay. In the course of his work, he finds a young boy (Adrian du Bois) hiding in an abandoned apartment. Realising that the boy has nowhere to go, Eusebio takes him into his home, and convinces the scared child that donning a cardboard box will keep him safe.

Quiet character study rewards patient viewers.

SYDNEY LATIN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL: The opening shot sets the tone and the pace of Peruvian science fiction film The Cleaner. A man stands alone at night on an urban overpass, smoking a cigarette. Both the minutes and a couple of speeding cars pass. The stillness of the moment, the growing impression that this unshaven man is not going to do anything prepares the audience for the glacial speed at which this film will move. And then bang as he steps in front of a speeding vehicle! Jump to the next scene: a broom scrapes across the bloodstained road. And so we meet our hero.

Events don’t move very fast in this film, but nevertheless it requires full attention

Events don’t move very fast in this film, but nevertheless it requires full attention, because the oblique approach of writer/director Adrian Saba means that important details can be easily missed. Bit by bit, interlocking pieces appear, almost from opposite ends of the jigsaw puzzle. The man pushing the broom is a forensic cleaner, Eusebio Vela (Victor Prada), who typically cleans up after crime scenes such as suicides, but his work is busier now. The company he works for has the contract for cleaning up the corpses that have been left behind by a mysterious plague that has been decimating the adult population of the unspecified city in which he lives. Not that Eusebio seems to mind. He is methodical in his cleanliness, but with all other tasks, he moves through the world in a somnambulistic fashion. His apartment is – naturally for a cleaner – not dirty, but like its tenant, its appearance suggests neglect. He appears to eat out of obligation, rather than any joy of food, or even hunger. He is completely detached from a life where sudden death has become commonplace. The streets and transport systems are deserted. At a restaurant, a fellow customer keels over and Eusebio barely bats an eye.

Inevitably, in the course of his duties, Eusebio encounters something to break him out of his sleepwalking existence. In the closet of an apartment he is cleaning, Eusebio finds an eight-year old boy whose mother has died from the rapidly spreading disease. He takes the boy to a doctor for examination and the medical practitioner reveals that like the English Sweat sickness that swept England in the 15th Century (fact), this outbreak of unknown origin or cause does not affect children.

From the Shirley Temple vehicle Little Miss Marker to Wim Wenders’ evocative Alice of the Cities, most film stories of an adult saddled with a child offer the older protagonist an opportunity to grow or be restored to an energetic life. But the question is, why does indifferent and apathetic Eusebio respond so deeply to this child who so prefers to be hidden, he’d rather live in a closet than share a living space with his benefactor? The Cleaner does answer that question, but like with everything else, it takes its time. Many will find this film sluggish, but as it gently progresses the film’s tardy pace actually becomes one of its major pleasures. This partially occurs because director Saba delivers – small piece by small piece – on all the narrative and emotional questions in this low-budget affair. (The exception is that he doesn’t explain the cause of the sickness, but since Western medical science has also been unable to answer that question over the past five centuries, Saba can hardly be blamed.)

The slow pace also allows contemplation of the frame and the stark light and the sparse arrangement of objects in this tragic world. The soundscape also becomes an ongoing source of contemplation. Barking dogs, muffled voices, unexplained white noise, things that go bump in the day; it all adds to the tense atmosphere, but not as a means of compensating for any lack of content. While the film’s attempts at humour are dark and sombre, in the sense of an overall visual and aural canvas, The Cleaner is like a work from a depressed Jacques Tati. But don’t let the threat of the darkness blind you to the film’s pleasures. They are considerable and manifold.


1 hour 35 min