The winner of the Golden Lion at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival in 2015, From Afar is the debut feature film by Lorenzo Vigas. The film is centered around Armando (Alfredo Castro), a lonely but wealthy middle-aged denture-maker who takes to the streets to find straight, reluctant young men to pay to stand, about-face with their nude buttocks facing him for his sexual gratification. Armando’s sexual modus operandi is interestingly “hands-off,” so-to-speak, as he never touches the young men he pays. Strangely enough, the lack of actual intercourse makes the experience seem even more demeaning for Armando’s young subjects as they stand starkly aware of their objectification and desperation.
Armando’s risky while also seemingly predatory hunt for young men is contrasted by his deeply repressed yet highly ordered personal life, which seems devoid of meaningful company or consistent familial interaction. His relative wealth in comparison to the poverty-stricken quarters he searches for men in also provides him no seeming comfort. Armando’s sexual routine brings him into contact with Élder (Luis Silva), a young man in a street gang involved in petty crime. Even by the low standards set by his own criminal behavior, Élder is an especially troubling individual with a penchant for violence and instability. Running the streets without a mind for even surface-deep analysis, Élder is a primal animal, moving from exploit to exploit with a single-minded focus.
Armando’s initial encounter with Élder is a familiar story in which Élder greets Armando’s requests with homophobic rage but obliges once a large sum of money enters the picture. However, Élder is never kind or willing to settle into the role of being hired, objectified or sexually exploited. The sexual purpose of which Élder has been sought is not fulfilled and a violent kerfuffle ends with Armando badly assaulted and his money stolen. Seemingly a complete experience that would impart a lesson of caution to even the most hard-headed, the experience does not end. Instead, Armando seeks out Élder again only to the same result minus the violence. Still, Armando persists in his interest leading to an unusual “trust then try” interaction of intrigue with limits. After paying to ascertain Élder’s whereabouts, Armando discovers Élder has been severely beaten. He nurses him back to health, entering a more personal yet still difficult interaction.
As the characters interact, small but simple details illuminate the disposition of both men from Armando’s likely unpleasant upbringing with an unsympathetic father to Élder’s abusive upbringing that he intends to repeat with his own offspring to teach them “what life’s about” (an emblematic line indicative of how poverty perpetuates itself into repeated cycles). The film’s slow progression is built more on what’s not said than what is. It focuses more on gestures and actions than it does communication. In doing so, it communicates the dark impossibility of its situation. The characters are extraordinarily different as one has aged wearily into a double life while the other has barely experienced life as his actions become progressively conducive with long-term functioning.
Despite this, the characters balance themselves into a state in which there is the basic understanding that if these characters were a little kinder to their own selves as individuals, they could work as a couple and maybe be happy. Unfortunately, it is simultaneously clear that these characters are both past a point in their lives or development in which these needed changes are possible. The impossibility of them is emotionally frustrating because despite their less-than-likable initial on-screen impressions, they burgeoned into multi-dimensional people with causes and effects regarding the totality of their existence as human beings. The ambiguity of the ending is less ambiguous regarding one character than it is the other, but in any event, one can’t help but feel disappointed by the outcome of forced circumstantial dissolution. However, kudos to Lorenzo Vigas’ character-building prowess as his film overall is not disappointing. It’s quite telling even in its statement about impossible love.