The Cleaner: Palm Springs Review

A controlled, stripped-down approach pays off in an affecting two-hander that’s set during what feels like the end of the world.

In his minimalist vision of dystopia, young Peruvian filmmaker Adrián Saba zeros in on the relationship between a lonely hospital worker and an orphaned child.

PALM SPRINGS — A mysterious and lethal epidemic takes hold of Lima in The Cleaner (El Limpiador), a two-hander that strikes a fine balance between bleak realism and stylized distance. The debut feature of Spain-born, Peru-raised writer-director Adrián Saba, which received the New Voices/New Visions Award at the Palm Springs festival, is an assured depiction of mass disaster on the level of intimate human interaction, rather than as sci-fi spectacle. Unlike the characters, the movie has a bright future, both on the fest circuit and in niche theatrical settings. 

Instead of creating a landscape-broad exhibit of mass devastation, Saba focuses on two characters who are drawn together as the city falls to pestilence: Eusebio (Victor Prada), a solitary, middle-aged forensic cleaner for a hospital, and Joaquin (Adrian Du Bois), an eight-year-old whose mother has succumbed to the disease. Saba uses spare dialogue, deadpan performances and studied compositions to tell a simple story of human connection. 

Hidden behind a white hazmat suit and orange gloves, Eusebio cleans up after the dead, whose numbers are quickly escalating. He’s on call round the clock, each groaning whir of his cellphone summoning him to another scene requiring his services. Lima residents who develop the lung infection’s symptoms don’t last 12 hours. In a scene of brilliantly understated horror, Eusebio sits in a small restaurant, watching TV news on the state of emergency, while another diner begins the telltale coughing mid-meal, dons a surgical mask and leaves, resigned to his fate. 

While cleaning an apartment where a woman has died, Eusebio finds her young son hiding in a closet. His first instinct is to shut the door, but he takes the boy home, naively thinking it will be for a day or two. But shelters are full, the city’s resources are strained past the breaking point, and the doctor (Miguel Iza) he approaches for help is too distracted by the wider crisis. 

In keeping with a tried-and-true storytelling convention, what begins as a reluctant setup develops into a meaningful bond. Saba develops the mostly wordless relationship without sentimentality but not without touches of humor. In his undemonstrative way, Eusebio is reassuring: Although those under 20 aren’t susceptible to the illness, he concocts ways to soothe Joaquin’s worries, adopting comical yet poignant tactics to make him feel protected. Together they negotiate some sort of normality. When the boy asks for a story, Eusebio reads aloud the user’s manual for his TV set, the only printed material he has at hand. 

Hope seeps into the story even as Eusebio’s mopping up of the empty streets grows repetitive and futile. The director builds upon his characters’ isolation, not just with a slowly uncoiling sense of dread but also with hints of tenderness. Joaquin inspires Eusebio to visit places he wouldn’t normally go: church, the cemetery, the beach and the nursing home where someone close to him is passing his remaining days. A trip to a public pool plays a crucial role but raises questions of narrative logic -- would such a venue still be open? 

By and large, the film’s limited scope is an effective way into its mood of emptiness and quarantine. The rising drone of Karin Zielinski’s score expresses the unsettling eeriness of the stricken city, and cinematographer César Fe’s desaturated palette perfectly suits the material. So too does his use of a fixed camera, with a wrenching jolt of motion -- and emotion -- in the movie’s final moments.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival

Production companies: Flamingo Films in co-production with La Gris Films

Cast: Víctor Prada, Adrián Du Bois

Screenwriter-director: Adrián Saba

Producers: Carolina Denegri, Adrián Saba

Director of photography: César Fe

Production designer: Aaron Rojas

Music: Karin Zielinski

Editor: Justin Beach

Sales agent: Film Republic

No MPAA rating, 96 minutes