Alfredo Castro has one of the great faces of modern cinema, with his stern gaze channeling generations of turmoil. In recent years, Castro has fueled a series of memorable statements on Chile’s lingering relationship to the Pinochet dictatorship, playing the psychotic recluses at the center of Pablo Larrain’s allegorical “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem” (he also surfaces, with more conventional supporting roles, in Larrain’s “No” and upcoming “Neruda”). In “From Afar,” Castro shifts his talent to the north, for Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas’ debut, and delivers another engrossing statement on national identity in which the actor’s somber expression drives the story forward.
He’s joined this time by another striking visage: Newcomer Luisa Silva, who has been appropriately compared to a young Marlon Brando since “From Afar” won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival last fall. Silva plays a teen street thug Elder, who develops a passionate love affair with upper-class loner Armando (Castro).
The movie’s disquieting tone unfolds with a familiar kind of naturalism — devoid of soundtrack, it develops an engrossing reality filled with pregnant pauses and fragmented exchanges. There’s a palpable despair to this scenario rooted in the authenticity of its environment. Imagine neorealist staple Roberto Rossellini doing “Brokeback Mountain” and you might start to get the idea. Vigas’ narrative leaves something to be desired, with a few too many holes in character motivation to make the entire scenario hold together. At times its grim, muted atmosphere stifles the material. But the danger surrounding their developing sexual attraction is riddled with possibilities.
While Armando hails from the upper class, he resides in an impoverished part of Caracas, and spends his days soliciting sex from young locals. In the first scene, he nabs Elder off the street for a quickie and promptly gets robbed. But rather than calling the cops, he lets the kid go and gives him more work. As they spend more and more time together, the pair develop a unique bond steeped in questions.
Riddled with a fascinating degree of ambiguity, the movie’s gritty exterior makes it hard to discern the impulses in play. Is Elder exploiting Armando or is it the other way around? It remains unclear until the very end, when a series of violent developments redefine the events building up to them. As with France’s Alain Guiraudie (“Stranger By the Lake”), Vigas has fueled Hitchcockian suspense into the kind of overtly gay narrative Hitchcock would never make.
But “From Afar” isn’t about a gay romance so much as how the homoerotic tension between these two men challenges the social barriers surrounding them — and how they choose to react to that. Silva plays Elder as a rough kid with a vulnerable side he only discovers once he develops feelings for the older man, while Armando’s motives remain shrouded in mystery. At times, Vigas camera remains stationary for moments on end, watching the two men attempt to express their emotions while tethered to the restrictive masculinity imposed on them.
A two-hander about men from wildly different socioeconomic backgrounds coping with repressed desires, “From Afar” uses understatement to its advantage. When Armando and Elder lock eyes, everything that remains unspoken speaks volumes about their internal struggles. When they do begin to discuss their upbringings, they find common ground in their estranged fathers, and it’s clear the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. That connection deepens the movie’s symbolic dimension, as it reflects a kind of turmoil that stretches across barriers of age and class alike. Elder’s dad has been locked up for the same kind of street hustling now pursued by his offspring, while Armando’s own traumatic memories of his father have deeper psychological implications.
At times, the movie’s slow-burn approach creates a distancing quality from the material, but more often it enhances scenes with an enveloping sense of intrigue. In the abrupt finale, Vigas takes a sharp turn toward tragedy and ends on his chief storytelling vessel: Castro, gazing off-screen at events that speak to the past and the present struggles in Latin American society with a profound mixture of loss and aggression. It’s both eerie and touching; even on multiple viewings, its full ramifications are unclear, but that same uncertainty makes them count for something.
“From Afar” opens Friday, June 10 in New York at Film Forum with a national expansion to follow.