A tightly clenched fist of a film, there’s no doubt that “From Afar” heralds the arrival a new talent in debut Venezuelan writer/director Lorenzo Vigas. But the term usually applied to such breakouts is “exciting” and that might be a bridge too far in describing this rigorously controlled, glacially paced, wilfully enigmatic film, which literalizes its title by unfolding at arms length with a detachment that can almost seem like alienation.
As if aware that the peculiar actions and reactions of his cloudily motivated, ambivalent characters might seem erratic or unaccountable if played out at normal speed, Vigas opts for an unusual rhythm, in which indeterminate swathes of time can elapse between scenes, but the scenes individually play out in minute, unblinking detail, often wordlessly. Dialogue throughout is so sparing that it’s a bit of a shock when anyone speaks, and it inevitably happens only after long periods of silence freighted with far more meaning than the words. The deliberate approach and the mastery of its not-quite-explicable atmosphere of disconnect and fatalism suggest that Vigas has arrived as a director of note fully formed, but at the same time it’s hard to prise out the kernel of truth that the story undoubtedly contains. And Vigas’ grip is so tight that even if you do get to the heart of his meaning, there’s a chance it will have had the life squeezed out of it.
In an economical, largely dialogue-free opening sequence, we meet Armando (the great Pablo Larrain regular Alfredo Castro), or rather we meet the back of his head as we trail him through busy Caracas streets and notice him noticing a limber young man in a loose singlet at a stop sign. He stands behind him, just a little too close, sits in beside him on the bus they board, and discreetly riffles a wad of notes with a practiced snap. Next moment we are in Armando’s house, the young man has obeyed his command to stand facing the wall with his ass exposed, and Armando sits in a chair masturbating. They do not touch, the guy endures the humiliation with a stoic, dissociative expression that Armando cannot see, and when he’s done, the young man takes the money and leaves. Scarcely a word has been exchanged: this is not interaction but transaction, and it is now complete.
Armando seems to earn a comfortable living as a denture technician. He has a sister and a estranged relationship with his father, who threatens at the edges of his life again after a long absence, due to a childhood experience. Other than that, and possibly because of those paternal issues, he seems utterly alone bar the occasional non-tactile sexual encounter, but the next one of those we see, when he picks up cocky, macho auto worker Elder (impressive newcomer Luis Silva), goes awry when Elder refuses his “maricon” (“faggot”) advances, beats him up, and steals his money. Here the first of many puzzling, contradictory behaviors occurs as despite the viciousness of their encounter, Armando seeks the violent, verbally abusive Elder out again, and a relationship of see-sawing dependency and attraction evolves between them.
You might well assume from this initial incident that Armando has masochist tendencies, or that perhaps, while he seems serenely immune to the world at large, he has internalized the South American macho culture and has a streak of self-hating homophobia that leads him to want to self-destruct. But the relationship between Armando and Elder, who not at all coincidentally also suffered at the hands of his now-dead father, mutates into something much odder than that. Partly paternal, partly predatory, and only briefly physical, it’s an eternal riddle of who-wants-who and in-what-way that seems almost perversely predicated on one or other of them behaving in a diametrically opposed manner to that which we might expect.
Beautifully photographed (by another Larrain collaborator in DP Sergio Armstrong) in composed interiors and long tracking, usually following shots, the sense of calm remove is enhanced by a total absence of score. Again, Vigas’ confidence in trusting his audience to form an emotional connection to the narrative (based on a story idea from Guillermo Arriaga) without such signposting is admirable, but the film expects and needs your patience and close attention. It mostly earns both, a lot down to a magnificently subtle, internalized performance from Castro, which plays off Silva’s more jittery, externalized turn to quiet perfection. In fact it’s probably the sureness of these two actors more than anything that convinces us that there really is some psychological realism to their awkward waltz of need, desire, and disgust, because otherwise, under Vigas’ deft baton, they seem to be dancing to music we cannot hear. [B]