An image from the Venezuelan film "From Afar"Alexandra Bas / Strand Releasing
By Nick McCarthy
The surprise winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, From Afar, patiently portrays the unlikely connection and gay affair that blossoms between a middle-aged introvert and a young street kid.
With his buttoned-up attire and clean haircut, the 50-year-old Armando (Alfredo Castro) lives a financially comfortable life working on dental prosthetics. To Armando, however, money is merely a tool of power, as he cruises the streets and flashes a wad of cash at curious young men in hopes of paying them not to touch, but strip for him across his living room.
A routine pick up turns hostile, however, when a 17-year-old boy—ironically named Elder (Luis Silva)—spews homophobic hate speech upon entering Armando’s apartment. As Armando tries to calm the boy, Elder clocks him over the head with a porcelain statue, which he steals along with his wallet.
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Following another encounter in the street, Elder remains hot-headed as Armando explains, “I’m not coming for my wallet,” and holds out more money. The two exchange little more than piercing, inquisitive looks, but when Elder is brutally beaten by thugs Armando nurses him back to health in his cushy, book-filled apartment and paves the way for mutual understanding.
The narrative framework of a wealthy, shy older man and a poor, fiery young stud coming to terms with their own issues together is nothing new and possesses a tinge of ickiness. But From Afar avoids clichés by acutely channeling the shifting dynamics - whether parental or physical - between the two troubled individuals.
Beyond the central relationship, debut director Lorenzo Vigas delicately depicts the two class-confined worlds that exist within the scrappy, sprawling streets of Caracas, Venezuela. As Armando and Elder spend more time together and introduce each other to their respective families, the evidence of social divide and acceptance grows larger as Armando and Elder become closer.
Despite being Vigas’s first film, From Afar is an assured, insightful psychological drama; it quietly investigates the priorities of its main characters, eloquently reflecting the confusion with which the twosome wrestle. The clear-eyed setting is elevated, as well, by the sensitive performances from Castro and Silva.
Castro, most well known for his audacious collaborations with esteemed Chilean director Pablo Larrain, turns in a particularly devastating performance — expressively teasing out the sadness of middle-aged loner without reducing Armando to a caricature of repressed self-loathing. More than anything, the film is a tale of survival and identity that quietly expose the callousness of youth and disaffection of an older, closeted generation while presenting its protagonists as full-blooded, complex humans.
The title, From Afar, can also be used to describe the way Vigas fastidiously frames his portrait of two men coming to terms with their desires and fears from a voyeuristic distance. While the film plays out at a very deliberate, slow pace, there is never a moment spared. The camera often lingers, creating a powder keg of tension as it captures the electricity of companionship and the bustling roads of Caracas through gestures, looks, and proximity. And as Armando and Elder open up to each other and adjust their rigid attitudes, they move closer toward reconciling their rough pasts with a bittersweet, uncertain future.
From Afar opens at the Film Forum in New York City on June 8 before expanding across the country this summer.
Nick McCarthy is the operations manager at NewFest, an LGBTQ film and media arts organization, and has written for such publications as Slant Magazine, Time Out New York and The Film Experience.