Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas unveils a stellar debut with stark and subversive relationship drama From Afar. Detailing the unsettling and, by degrees, venomous relationship between a closeted middle-aged gay man and an under aged gang member he solicits in the slums of Caracas, the stifling, complex psychological portrait was the surprise winner of the Golden Lion at the 2015 Venice Film Festival (usurping a bevy of renowned auteurs). A glance at the producers (including directors Michel Franco, Gabriel Ripstein, along with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, and actor Edgar Ramirez) helps indicate the level of assuredness from newcomer Vigas, who spins something unique and intriguing out of dire ambiguity. As subtle layers are revealed about the players during the development of an obscure relationship within a rigid realm where the mildest hint of homophobia instigates violence and cruelty, the narrative builds into an ever revolving power play with eventual distressing results.
Armando (Alfredo Castro) is a middle aged loner who picks up young men on the streets of Caracas in exchange for money. The transactions are rather low key, since Armando seems keen on observing the young men in a casual state of undress rather than perform any actual sex acts involving contact. He owns his own workshop making dentures, which provides him with a surplus of cash. A strained exchange with his sister (Catherina Cardoza) reveals their estranged father is back in the city, something the siblings feel extremely distressed about, but exactly why is never explained. Armando eventually hones in on seventeen year old Elder (Luis Silva), a volatile kid who roams the streets and engages in violent fights with the brothers of his girlfriend. Though their first interaction is laced with homophobic epithets, Elder follows the older man home, but beats him unconscious and steals his money. Armando is unfazed by the incident and begins to follow Elder around, including entering his home. Eventually, circumstances allow Armando to nurse the young back to health, and then, curiously, both of them begin to act in ways initially contrary to their character.
Castro is quite unnerving here, initially the more sympathetic character during the elongated set-up as a lonely man with troubling tendencies regarding intimacy and haunted by the vaguely explained ‘return’ of his father, a man we learn little of and only observe ‘from afar.’ Castro’s performance is perhaps his most compelling since his terrifying role in Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero (2008), and the Chilean actor’s presence (including commentary about his character’s ‘strange’ accent) would suggest potentially grievous war crimes perhaps related to the atrocities of Pinochet’s dictatorship. But among many explicit details, Vigas wisely avoids spelling anything out too clearly, dropping hints suggesting Armando and his sister were adopted, perhaps a more simplified explanation for their conflict with a prodigal father.
Instead, Vigas fashions a stifling atmosphere in close visual proximity of his two leads and their less than desirable surroundings. Also borrowing Larrain’s regular DP, Sergio Armstrong, Vigas presents a washed out, sterile environment for Armando, a man who makes a surplus of money designing dentures. His claustrophobic lair where he brings his young, rough trade would seem to be a basement or garden level apartment, a place where natural light is not allowed to pierce. With a still, reptilian gaze, we watch him observe Elder, his sallow visage and faded pallor often suggesting Nosferatu.
Newcomer Luis Silva is a formidable presence opposite Castro, and Vigas paints him as a product of his environment, an angry, violent young man prone to animalistic tendencies doomed to keep him trapped in the oppressive squalor of his neighborhood. Clearly, like both their troubled relations to their fathers, his occupation involving repairing scrapped vehicles in a junk yard is meant as a way to align him with Armando, both technicians of ‘equipment’ necessary for the daily functions of a certain class of people. Their relationship is unveiled through processes one can only really describe as a method of exchange, or transaction, each getting something from the other, though not what either was directly aiming for. Eventually, Elder becomes attached to Armando in startling, surprising ways, and though Vigas takes pains to present this development realistically, it’s curious to note how certain audiences appear to be dismissive of Elder’s attraction to a man like Armando (particularly from aesthetically obsessed gay audiences who are vocally disinterested in consuming erotic depictions of less than desirable specimens).
But Vigas rather adeptly provides the portrait of a young man who has grown up without any real affection or love, and like abused children who are finally introduced to nurturing attention, the response depicted here feels rightly calibrated, especially considering complex subjects of developing sexuality. Vigas offers no clear explanations, simply a process of two people interacting—in fact, we rarely see what it is they are gazing at, either at a celebratory party, or even a shot of Armando’s father when Armando follows him into an elevator. Instead, we’re forced to observe their emotional registers via expression and body language, something sometimes tedious but ultimately fascinating since these are characters not exactly calibrated to elicit sympathy or a sense of camaraderie with their audiences.