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 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 de­but, Vi­gas dis­plays a re­mark­able tal­ent be­hind the cam­era — while, on the oth­er hand, that 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. Like a screen­play writ­ten by a ro­bot who doesn’t have a real 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 out of fo­cus when they ap­pear to­geth­er in the same shot. No con­nec­tion.

There are dozens of those mo­ments in From Afar, with faces in close-up and a blurred back­ground be­hind them. 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, but rather a cu­ri­ous de­tail that shows 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 at dif­fer­ent mo­ments. In both, we see Ar­man­do and El­der lit­er­al­ly sep­a­rat­ed by a di­vid­ing 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 dis­tant.

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 off­screen. We nev­er see his face, and that, con­sid­er­ing his ab­sence from Armando’s life, is a more than ap­pro­pri­ate choice from a di­rec­tor who al­ways finds the most in­tel­li­gent ways to say what he wants us­ing a medi­um that he un­der­stands quite well. If there is an award that From Afar cer­tain­ly de­served, it is for best di­rec­tor.

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 to be just that: char­ac­ters, in­stead of real peo­ple as they should. Their con­tra­dic­tions nev­er give them 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 of that as well 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 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 for its prob­lems. De­spite them, Vi­gas is with­out a 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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