Turn around and take off your shirt: From Afar

From Afar (Desde Allá) (2015)

While extremely telling as a visual piece of work, the script is not so consistent, especially as the characters’ motivations become too implausible

From Afar

Directed by Lorenzo Vigas. Written by Guillermo Arriaga and Lorenzo Vigas. Starring Alfredo Castro, Luis Silva, Jericó Montilla and Catherina Cardozo.

Armando (Alfredo Castro) is a distant man. Wealthy and estranged from his father, he is a middle-aged owner of a dental prosthesis business in Caracas who spends very little time in the company of other people. Whenever he can, he pays young men to show him their naked bodies while he masturbates from a distance. Armando doesn’t want any human connection, he only likes to watch. One day, he brings to his place a 17-year-old boy named Elder (Luis Silva), who beats him up and steals his money. You see, Elder is a criminal street kid who spends most of his time stealing cars and bashing the heads of other street kids with his gang. But Armando manages to find Elder again and soon they start to develop a strange relationship that won’t turn well for either of them.

Winner of the Golden Lion at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival, From Afar is director Lorenzo Vigas’ first feature film, which is a double surprise. I say double because for a first film Vigas displays a remarkable talent behind the camera – which, on the other hand, doesn’t justify the fact that it won an award it hardly deserved. The main problem is that, while extremely telling as a visual piece of work, the script is unfortunately not so consistent, especially with regard to its characterizations. It lacks cohesion and feels mostly dry when trying to get into what drives its characters. Something like a screenplay written by a robot who doesn’t have a grasp on human feelings.

With a constant use of shallow focus (the depth of field always at the smallest possible) and keeping the camera usually over Armando’s shoulders, Vigas makes visually explicit the man’s necessity for detachment. The rest of the world is blurred around Armando and he cares only about himself, no one else matters. In the film’s first scene, we see a very attractive young man in sharp focus, as close as possible to the camera. Behind him, Armando is out of focus, staring at him. Every interaction between them after Armando lures the boy to his place is either a shot-reverse-shot or one character in focus and the other one out of focus when they appear together in the same shot. No connection.

There are dozens of these moments in From Afar showing faces in close-up with a blurred background behind. Vigas makes his point quite clear: no one in his movie cares about anyone else but themselves. It is no coincidence, even, that Armando works making dental molds, rather a curious detail that tells a lot about his clinical eye as he deals with other human beings, always maintaining a safe distance. Some people will do anything not to get hurt. Take for instance the two dinner scenes that take place in different moments of the film. In both we see Armando and Elder literally separated by a line on the screen (a wood beam), even if in the second scene Elder sits closer to Armando. They are way too different and no matter how close they get to each other they still remain separate.

Even so, in a key scene, Armando and Elder appear both in focus in the same shot. It is a single brief moment of intimate conversation when they lay down their barriers and allow each other in. Perfect. And what can be said about the fact that Armando’s father is never really shown? Every time he appears, it is a long shot or he is off-screen. We never see his face – which, considering his absence from Armando’s life, is an appropriate choice from a director who always finds the most appropriate ways to say what he wants using a medium that he understands so well. If there is an award that From Afar definitely deserved to win, it is of best director, no question about it.

But whereas visually the film speaks more than a thousand words, most of the time when you see the characters talk or act (especially Elder), they seem like what they are: characters, instead of real people like they should. Their contradictions never give them more nuances but only serve the interests of the plot. It is all too mechanical, calculated. The truth is, Vigas doesn’t seem to understand very well his own characters or their motivations, and so he ends up creating a movie that feels as dry as their lives. But while it works only in parts and has its share of clichés, it is interesting to see how it finds ways to surprise us occasionally, which helps raise the film above its limitations.

Still, even if it offers us here and there a peak into the human beings behind what we see – like the revealing moment when Elder admits to Armando that he would beat his own kid to show him how life is at least once –, those are isolated moments. Usually, From Afar comes off as too implausible, especially in the way that Elder behaves, mostly erratic and even embracing a decision in the third act that feels completely over the top from any angle you look. At least Luis Silva is good and has a lot of intensity to sell all that as much as he can. And Alfredo Castro, an excellent actor known for his outstanding performances in Pablo Larraín’s films, is always convincing.

With no soundtrack or a music score – except for two diegetic bachata songs in a party –, From Afar is a hard-hitting and expertly-directed piece that tackles urban matters like violence, homophobia and social inequality in Venezuela with the necessary grittiness. It will probably put some people off due to its slow pace but shouldn’t be dismissed because of its problems. Despite them, Vigas is without any doubt a very talented director with a promising future ahead and I can’t wait to see what he will come up with next.

July 14, 2016

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From Afar (Desde Allá)
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