Armando slinks about the bus stop, his expression blank, but his eyes searching, analysing. He spies his prey: a thin, hairless twink who in England may be referred to as ‘chav,’ or ‘scally’—the only thing missing is a track suit. On the bus, he sits down next to the boy and flashes a wad of cash. Cut to his apartment; Armando is direct: ‘Take off your shirt. Turn around. Drop your pants. No, not that far!’ He then masturbates, never touching the boy, but leering at the boy’s buttocks… from afar.
Not too long after Armando’s quick jerk-off sesh, he’s following another young kid around one of the shadier corners of Caracas. This is Elder, and he seems to confirm Armando’s type—riff-raff, street-rat. Not quite as easily swayed by his elder’s manipulations, he knocks Armando unconscious and takes off with the money, ass unexposed.
Armando doesn’t leave it at that, however, venturing back out to find the boy. Their relationship makes up the rest of Lorenzo Vigas’s debut film. From Afar, released in Venezuela as Desde allá, could have been an arthouse-y Odd Couple, but Vigas has loftier ambitions. Armando is a well-to-do man living in one of Caracas’s upper-crust neighbourhoods. Is his interest in Elder, an economically disadvantaged hoodlum, purely (one-sidedly) sexual, or can they connect on some other level?
It’s not like the two have nothing in common. They both seem to have daddy issues: Elder’s father beat him and is in jail, and Armando’s father… well, things are a little hazy there. He appears to be a very well-off businessman who has nothing to do with Armando and his sister anymore. And there are more than a few clues (Armando’s fetish, for instance) that he may have been abusive in a few ways.
Even though Elder injured and verbally abuses Armando, there is a clear indication that the older man doesn’t mind much, and may even expect it, or like it. The chickenhawk is clearly involved in some kind of power game—a fact made all the more clear in the final scene. It’s common for the bullied and abused to become bullies and abusers themselves, to ‘correct’ the fucked-up power imbalance inside of them. Vigas’s film swims about in notions of class, power, abuse, and sexuality, even if it never really fully attacks any of these subjects.
Indeed, Vigas’s style is one of ellipsis, elision. The events in From Afar are chronological, which isn’t to say they’re quite linear; the narrative timeline is more of a dashed line than a continuous one. Normally, I love this kind of storytelling—nothing is worse than when a filmmaker has a pathological need to spell everything out for an audience. I like it when a director assumes an audience’s intelligence and then proceeds not to insult it. However, the narrative gaps in From Afar aren’t simply the deletion of elements that the audience doesn’t need or can figure out for themselves; sometimes, they seem like a sneaky way of covering weaknesses in the film’s story or characterisations.
Consider the scene where Armando accompanies Elder to one of the boy’s family events. This happens late in the film, after the pair have adequately bonded, and this sure seems like an event that a kid would bring his boyfriend to—if he didn’t happen to live in a homophobic society like Venezuela. The problem is, I didn’t believe for a second that, given what we have seen of Elder’s character and his relationship to his family, he would choose to bring Armando to the party. This doesn’t seem like a simple elision on Vigas’s part, or that of his screenwriter. This seems like the filmmakers didn’t quite know how to get from A to B and so simply skipped to B. This happens a few times in From Afar, and I found it mildly irksome.
Add to this that Lorenzo Vigas, in a great many of his shots, uses a very shallow depth of frame: exactly one thing on screen will be in focus at a time, forcing our attention onto wherever Vigas wants it. There doesn’t really seem to be any reason for this, however. Unlike, say, Son of Saul, where a similar technique was used to convey the main character’s intentional limiting of his attention, here it is basically an affectation. I tried not to let the fact that this is a debut influence me, but it seemed like more of a style that Vigas was trying out, rather than a cinematic technique made necessary by the story or theme.
That said, Vigas does have clear talent, and From Afar seems a good portent of future quality. The script is by Guillermo Arriaga, famous for his intricate ensemble pieces directed by Alejandro González Inárritu. From Afar is pretty much a two-hander, however. Alfredo Castro gives Armando a calmness and dignity that even shines through as he’s lusting after supple young backsides. The real breakout though is Luis Silva as Elder, a sinewy mass of confusion and anger. It’s the kind of seething performance we got from Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal last decade.
The directorial style Vigas displays in very much in vogue now, which clearly contributed to its Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival (the Jury, headed by Alfonso Cuarón, included Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Lynne Ramsay, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Paweł Pawlikowski). It is also Venezuela’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and if Dogtooth can score a nomination, why not From Afar? I wouldn’t hold my breath, however; it’s too cold and distancing for what the Academy typically accepts.