Sunday’s premiere in Toronto screening of “Desde Allá” – the winner Saturday night of the Venice Film Festival’s coveted Golden Lion – revealed to a capacity audience a movie that’s a decidedly mixed blessing: Yes, it lingers on the palate like a four-star Michelin meal. But it makes you realize you’ve been spending most of your movie-going life at McDonald’s.
The first Venezuelan film to win Venice and the debut feature of director Lorenzo Vigas, it has at its center an unmarried, middle-aged maker of dentures, Armando (Alfredo Castro), who is in the habit of hiring young men from the streets of Caracas for his very particular brand of erotic satisfaction (no contact, just humiliation for everyone). Why Armando even bothers with Elder (Luis Silva) – a bona fide criminal, a violent punk who verbally abuses the older man, physically assaults him, robs him and treats his subsequent benevolence by robbing him again – is a mystery. But so is “Desde Allá” (or “From Afar”). And the way the Vigas allows matters to reveal themselves will cause viewers’ skin to very slowly crawl.
Vigas has an intoxicating, and occasionally intoxicated, way with the camera, focusing or not focusing with deliberate care and using the Caracan streets in a manner that is Goya-esque. The backstory is oblique, Armando’s family crises and history given away only through tantalizing asides, and the way Castro reveals his character through gestures and attitude. The engine of the story is the relationship between Armando, who at first seems to be the pathetic “faggot” Elder takes him for, and Elder himself, who is something of a feral animal — and, as per director Vigas’ intention, a personification of Venezuela’s social dysfunction. The destination is unknown, until it’s known, and then it’s terrible.
The setting is Third World, the acting is first-rate: Castro is astounding (he can currently be seen also in “The Club” from his native Chile), but Silva, in all of Elder’s delicacy, and cruelty, suggests a young Brando, who moves through the movie like a cat. The cat has issues, of course, but so did Stanley Kowalski. The third star of the film is Vigas’ script, a tight cluster of nuanced detail and suggestion that blossoms ever so slowly into a very poisonous flower.