Winner of the prestigious Golden Lion at Venice this year, Lorenzo Vigas’ debut film From Afar (2015) is a tightly controlled tale of quiet desperation and alienation set in present day Venezuela. Armando (Pablo Larraín muse Alfredo Castro) is a well-off small businessman with a false teeth business who regularly cruises the streets of Caracas for young street lads to come to his house and disrobe. Armando’s preference is for the nudity to be partial and the sex act to be performed solo and at a distance: from afar, if you will. It is an apparently joyless fetish and a conversation with his sister makes it clear that Armando’s coldness and his aversion to human contact is rooted in childhood trauma.
On learning that his father has returned to the city, we witness a rare glimpse of the fury usually kept buried deep within the mild-mannered dental technician. Armando’s peccadillo also involves some danger and when he picks up street tough Elder (Luis Silva), the boy wastes no time in knocking out Armando and stealing his money. With the masochism of self-loathing, Armando goes looking for the boy. Elder has in the meantime put a down payment on a wrecked car which he hopes to repair, and so when his victim turns up once more the money is tempting. Elder is at war with his girlfriend’s brothers and lives a precarious existence between the motorshop where he works and the street corner where he hangs out with his pals.
When Elder is on the receiving end of a beating, it is Armando who takes him in and cares for him and slowly a relationship develops as Elder finds he has more in common than he dreamed of with the older man. Thus far, From Afar has been as formal and buttoned down as its lead protagonist. The use of shallow focus to pick out a character and leaves everything else a blur feels like an overly literal depiction of alienation. The urban cacophony of Caracas, the traffic, latent violence and street noise contrast with the stuffy browns of Armando’s well-furnished but lifeless apartment. In a brief trip out of the city to the shore, the limpid sea air and the glorious sunshine comes as an immediate relief after the cluttered urban sprawl. Yet, the huge waves crashing in and thundering on the soundtrack are a foreboding of more violence to come as a murder plot is first mooted. The unlikely romance developing between Elder and Armando, with their polar opposites of class and lived experience, and the significant age gap is reminiscent of French film Untouchables (2011).
The more conventional thriller element demands that the transformation from enmity to something like love is too swiftly accomplished to be properly convincing. In particular, a trip to a party for Elder’s cousin looks foolhardy considering the suspicions it arouses and Elder’s own initial homophobia. It could be argued that his street smarts are trumped by his need for human warmth, but Armando doesn’t really do human warmth. Vigas keeps his audience at arm’s length and it’s no surprise that the director identifies more readily with the watcher than the watcher. Castro adds to his gallery of lonely outsiders from Tony Manero (2008) to Post Mortem (2010), but there is a sense that he might be too snugly situated in his own discomfort zone. Silva has the harder task as his character transforms and he imbues Elder with a bruised affection.
The 72nd Venice Film Festival takes place from 2-12 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.