From Afar (Desde allá) Written and directed by Lorenzo Vigas; with Alfredo Castro, Luis Silva, Catherina Cardozo, Jerico Montilla
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Armando (played by Alfredo Castro), a 50-year-old man who makes false teeth, collects young men from a Caracas slum, and, in return for payment, has them strip to the waist and turn with their backs to him, while he masturbates. This habit is a suitable image for “From Afar” – the English title of the directorial debut of Lorenzo Vigas, from Venezuela – which won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival. The image of a man who achieves sexual satisfaction while looking at a youth whose face is turned away from him, corresponds to the picture’s style: It is rife with emotional distance and psychological withdrawal, even if that distance gradually dissolves.
Though “From Afar” is a Venezuelan film, it’s reinforced by leading lights from Mexican cinema. It’s based on a story by Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote the first three screenplays of the director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel”), and the producers include another Mexican, the director Michel Franco.
The hub of the film, which displays talent and intelligence, is a relationship that develops between Armando, who in the past has been physically assaulted by some of the young men he took into his home (whose interior bespeaks coldly correct design) and a street youth named Elder (Luis Silva). At first Elder responds to Armando’s overtures with homophobic hostility, but in the end he goes with him. Money, after all, is money.
Elder robs and attacks Armando, but the older man feels a special attraction to him. He follows him to his slum neighborhood and renews the relationship with him, despite Elder’s initial reservations. After Elder is injured badly when attacked by a gang, Armando takes him home to look after him. Now the balance of forces between the two begins to change. But this is not a love story that unfolds before our eyes, since the two central characters are depicted enigmatically, in a manner more allusive than revealing. Armando is an unknown quantity, pale and demonstratively uncharismatic; despite his centrality in the plot, he seems to be hovering in its shadows. Elder, for his part, is both aggressive and vulnerable.
“From Afar” does not tell a story in which Elder’s attraction to men is gradually revealed; it’s not that kind of film. It’s about the need for a relationship, especially after it emerges that both protagonists have unresolved issues with their fathers. Without this fact being painted in glaring psychological colors, the age gap between Armando and Elder, and its role in their developing relationship – whose sexual characterwavers between aggression and gentleness – is pertinent to the father-son theme. We learn, for example, from a conversation between Armando and his sister (Catherina Cardozo), that their father, from whom they are estranged, has returned to take up residence in the area. Befitting the spirit of the entire film, we can only infer from their dialogue how badly their father hurt them. Another character, Elder’s mother (Jerico Montilla), is a product of the homophobic Venezuelan society and culture. She is amazed that Elder brings Armando to her home for a meal, but lacks the tools to process her astonishment.
The picture is directed with such precise meticulousness that it absolutely effuses coldness. Yet that coldness blends so seamlessly into the film’s overall spirit that it succeeds in a singular way to express emotion while totally avoiding melodrama and sentimentality. Nor is the aim to make us feel an exalted satisfaction.
The temperate palette of cinematographer Sergio Armstrong helps create the film’s stylistic and emotional thrust. Still, the movie belongs first and foremost to its two leads: the acclaimed Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, who is also a playwright, a director, the founder of theater troupes and a significant figure in Chilean culture; and Luis Silva, here making his screen debut. The difference in status between the esteemed veteran thespian and the young, cinematically inexperienced actor is also an element in the equation that is created between the two protagonists. But it’s primarily the difference in their exterior expressions that lends the movie its power. Castro’s expressionless visage counterpoises Silva’s animated, passion-filled face, and the very act of observing the outward difference between them creates one of the film’s layers.
Above and beyond the homosexual aspect, which is almost secondary in the film, “From Afar” depicts in its distinctive, non-formulaic way, a bond that is formed between two men. Indeed, even their need for that bond is revealed suggestively and with restraint. This is an impressive film, certainly for a debut, which attests to an uncommon cinematic approach. Vigas emerges as a promising talent, and I’m curious to see where his cinematic journey will take him.