“From Afar” begins with a middle-aged man prowling the streets of Caracas. He is looking for a young man to bring home, using his money as an incentive. He finds one and pursues his catch, successfully luring him for sexual gratification. His arousal is derived from visual stimulation rather than physical contact, however. And similarly, director Lorenzo Vigas takes a conservative approach to this tense drama of male desire.
This opening scene isn’t the last of such encounters we’ll witness in the film. Our main protagonist, dental technician Armando (played by Alfredo Castro), is soon back on the hunt again, finding another handsome target named Elder (Luis Silva). But this time he is faced with a violently homophobic thug. Unsurprisingly, the pickup soon goes awry as Armando is attacked and robbed. Armando isn’t deterred however, approaching him further with more money. After some hesitation, an arrangement is settled, fueled by the men’s unique desires. Elder reaps the financial benefits, perfect for buying the car he has his eye on, while Armando seemingly seeks companionship. The men gradually form a bond, but their opposing backgrounds and attitudes threaten impending ruination.
Indeed, we don’t need to see Elder’s outbursts of violence to get a strong feeling of dread. Vigas maintains a vice-like grip on the narrative, creating a tense atmosphere through taut, pin-drop silences and spare, suspense-filled storytelling. As the film’s central relationship develops, Vigas never coddles the audience, often forcing you to fill the blanks of their minimal dialogue and questionable actions.
It’s a tall order to ask of the actors, but luckily Silva and Castro are mostly up to the challenge. The former gives a raw, unpredictable performance that gives the film much of its edge. Meanwhile, Castro suggests his own dark undertones with his quiet intensity.
But Castro’s talent feels especially wasted here, as the script shortchanges his character development for the sake of mystery. Though Vigas’ style is undeniably gripping, the film’s minimalism neither conveys the passion to support Armando’s obsession nor the character development to fully explain his perspective. And while Elder’s off-putting demeanor is softened as time passes, we still never get a convincing understanding of their connection (aside from similarly burdensome daddy issues which aren’t fully fleshed out).
Simply put, the film leaves the audience with too many unnecessary questions. Vigas’ assured direction certainly deserves commendation but his screenwriting is often frustratingly vague. “From Afar” showcases a promising auteur in the making, but this lauded debut outing is ultimately a disappointment.
“From Afar” is now available on DVD and VOD from Strand Releasing.
“From Afar” is the Venezuelan submission for the 2016 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.