By Carlos Aguilar | Indiewire December 2, 2013 at 4:30PM
The Cleaner, Peru's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : None Yet . International Sales Agent: Film Republic
Needy of social interaction like no other creature, people tend go to extreme measures to satisfy their urge for intimacy. But what if such desire to be surrounded by others was to become the very thing that kills you. It would create a forceful isolation in order to survive making any attempt to connect a serious life-threading endeavor. Under this scenario, those previously adapted to be alone would be the most suited to thrive. Then, the predicament is whether to remain hidden or to risk it all to feel a bit more human. Set against the backdrop of an epidemic of apocalyptic proportions in Lima Peru, Adrián Saba’s The Cleaner is much more a film about unbearable loneliness than about deadly viruses. Ingeniously using this dangerous airborne disease as analogy to the alienation of certain people, his film evokes a certain odd warmth.
Desensitized by his constant involvement with the dead, Eusebio (Víctor Prada) works handling deceased bodies, cleaning the spaces they were in contact with, and disposing of their belongings. His shifts have become more frequent due to the innumerable amount of sudden deaths in the Peruvian capital, product of a fatal illness that kills the victim within 12 hours of showing symptoms. Forcing the lucky ones who have been infected to stay out of the streets, this unexplained and highly contagious virus can be easily mistaken for the common cold. On one of his routine trips to sanitize the interior of a house, the cleaner finds a young boy, Joaquin (Adrian du Bois), the son of yet another casualty. Unable to find the boy’s father Eusebio cares for him while they figure out their next step. However, they are both equally afraid of each other at first, as the man is not used to having people around and the kid has witnessed too much tragedy for his age.
Lacking any sort of meaningful human connection, Joaquin represents an anchor to life for the seemingly apathetic adult in the midst of the heartbreaking disaster. In an adorable gesture Eusebio builds a robot-like mask for the boy out of a cardboard box. This serves as a safety blanket to help him come out of his hiding spot in the close where he remains, hiding and fearful he might catch the disease. Once out of his shell and with Eusebio’s knowledge that, miraculously, children are not being affected by the epidemic, the duo forms an unlikely friendship sharing moments never experienced by either of them before. His reignited interest in people pushes him to visit his senile father, a decision that is of little significance for the elderly man, but which provides Eusebio with peaceful closure. Now, his life’s purpose is to get Joaquin to safety with his aunt, a mission that will put him at risk, but which is well worth the danger.
Economical in its depiction of the desolation, the vastly vacant urban landscapes are intensely more powerful than what the inclusion of gruesome sequences could have delivered. Empty stadiums, deserted avenues, and a bleak atmosphere overall add to the cinematographic choice of draining the frames of any saturated color. The opaque visual palette is equivalent to the monotonous and gloomy existence led by protagonist who demonstrates that dying in happiness and fulfillment is better than living in obscurity. Victor Prada as Eusebio succeeds at giving a wonderfully nuanced performance within the indifference and insensitivity that surround his world. Suddenly turned into a father, he finds his priorities changed and the loving transformation what occurs from within rids him of his profound solitude, a harsher affliction than any viral infection. Fresh-faced newcomer Adrian du Bois completes the picture fatalistically with the tender vulnerability of a child grappling with the concept of death and the feeling, just like his caregiver, of being alone in the world.
Eventually, the terrible events that set the plot in motion, stop being about cleaning surfaces for Eusebio and become an opportunity for a spiritual cleansing, a
reinvigorating experience to connect with others once again and to rejoice in the juvenile wonder of his companion. Writer/ director Adrian Saba scores a
marvelous debut, full of heart that takes advantage of its intelligent minimalism and expands on it via two memorable characters as he succeeds in telling a story with a truly original
premise. Saba is aware that the only infallible cure for heartache is selfless love. Delightfully worthy of praise, The Cleaner is subtly
comedic, profoundly affecting, and an endearing rare treat.