Cast: Alfredo Castro, Luis Silva
Director: Lorenzo Vigas
Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Every so often, a film comes along with a narrative structure which seems to be giving you one kind of story, only to slowly reveal itself as something else entirely. Lorenzo Vigas's From Afar is one such film; a brilliantly understated and deeply haunting meditation on desire and the pitfalls of infatuation. It follows the mundane existence of middle-aged Armando (Alfredo Castro), a man who frequently cruises the streets of Venezuela for young straight men by showing them a wad of cash and then asking them to come back to his apartment. During the opening scene, we are shown one such encounter in which a teen boy undresses himself while Armando sits across the room pleasuring himself. We assume, of course, that Armando is a sexually frustrated creep; someone who preys on impoverished street kids by flaunting his wealth, but after picking up a wary 17-year-old named Elder (Luis Silva), the film's perspective starts to shift. Vigas's intentions here seem to be less about exploitation or demonizing his characters; but rather, about how unreciprocated desire and the role of estranged fathers can cause a schism in one's sense of masculinity.
Like Abdellah Taia's similarly nuanced queer love story Salvation Army, From Afar buries its themes within the socio-economic gap between older men of certain means and adolescent street punks hustling simply to survive. Even though Elder accosts Armando, calling him an "old fag" and brutally knocking him unconscious at one point, there's a genuine connection which forms between them. Some of this has to do with fiscal realities; Armando buys Elder food and provides him with material necessities, but there's also an erotic undercurrent stemming from mutually distant relationships with their respective fathers. Vigas masterfully delineates this information by shooting in shallow and deep focus, separating the object of desire and the one watching for much of the film before eventually drawing them closer together in the frame. Meanwhile, Castro matches his director's clear-eyed vision with one of the year's most subtle and devastatingly moving performances. His portrayal of Armando leans mostly on a sense of longing caught in the eyes and through the use of small gestures; seen most vividly in one particular scene where Elder offers to clean up the dishes after a meal. The subtle shift from stoic gaze to half-smile is so unaffected that one might not even notice it, and there are many moments like this where Castro gives us just enough to sympathize with Armando while also leaving us wondering just what motivates him.
From Afar arrives at some unexpected places during its final third, but it never feels like the narrative is creaking under the weight of screenwriting manipulation. These are damaged, broken, fully human characters making decisions based on different survival mechanisms, and Vigas's empathy toward them makes their ultimate fates all the more inevitable. Once Elder acts out physically on impulses he doesn't fully understand, it's almost as if the entire relationship loses it's meaning for Armando; culminating in a climax that's quietly heart-breaking. Intrinsically linked to the ways in which we are often drawn to unattainable objects of desire, From Afar is more than simply an essential addition to Queer cinema; it has the universal tinge of real life.