'From Afar' Draws You In By Holding You At Arm's Length

Jun 8, 2016
Originally published on June 8, 2016 6:35 pm

A relationship drama with societal implications, Desde Allá (From Afar) hails from afar — specifically, from Venezuela — and marks a striking debut for first-time writer director Lorenzo Vigas.

His method is to draw you in by holding you at a slight remove — a habit he seems to have picked up from its leading man.

Armando (Alfredo Castro, tamping down his considerable charisma) is a man you might not notice if you saw him on the street. Grey, fifty-ish, nondescript. He lives alone, and spends his days making dentures. After work, his life is more dangerous, but no more colorful. He picks up rough trade on street corners in poor neighborhoods in Caracas, bringing the young men back to his apartment. He never touches them. Just offers cash for a few minutes of ... let's call it "company."

"Turn around and take off your shirt," he tells one tough, a car mechanic and petty thief named Elder (newcomer Luis Silva). The kid looks contemptuously at Armando, then knocks him cold, and muttering anti-gay epithets, takes his money and his wallet.

Elder is astonished a few days later when Armando shows up at his street corner again, flashes a wad of cash, and offers to pay him to come back.

"There's more in the apartment," he says, and turns on his heel. Elder watches him go, shaking his head. A little later, though, he's knocking at the door, and a strange connection is made.

A strange and ultimately shattering connection as depicted by Vigas, who is confident enough in his debut feature to allow his characters to be flat-out perplexing. There are things they have in common — they both despise their fathers, for instance. Elder repairs cars, and you could say, as a denture-maker, Armando repairs mouths.

But in most respects, these two men could hardly be more different. Watch them eating in a restaurant, and it's almost as if they're stand-ins for Venezuela's stratified society. Armando cultivated, dabbing his lips with a napkin, Elder wolfing his food, barely able to hold a fork.

Their emotions and interactions are equally disparate. When Elder gets beaten up, Armando pays for a nurse to heal him ... and Elder repays that kindness by trying to steal things from Armando's apartment. Then, incongruously, the two go together to a family birthday party.

Filmmaker Vigas has previously worked in documentaries, which may be why, in From Afar, he observes the aggression and violence of Caracas in an almost wordless, uninflected way. His camera often stands at a slight remove from his characters as they circle each other, misunderstanding and misinterpreting. How could they not be wary of reaching across the social gulf that divides them? Self-protection has always meant detachment and distance. And for Armando at least, even intimacy can only be safely practiced from afar.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

"From Afar" is the title of a new movie from afar - Venezuela. The Spanish title is "Desde Alla." It's been winning prizes at festivals for months, and today it opens in New York. Our critic Bob Mondello calls "From Afar" a relationship drama with social implications.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Armando is a man you might not notice if you saw him on the street - grey, 50ish, nondescript. He lives alone and spends his days making dentures. After work, his life is more dangerous, but no more colorful.

He picks up rough trade on street corners in poor neighborhoods in Caracas, bringing the young men back to his apartment. He never touches, just offers cash for a few minutes of - let's call it company.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FROM AFAR")

ALFREDO CASTRO: (As Armando, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: Turn around and take off your shirt, he tells one tough car mechanic and petty thief. The kid looks contemptuously at Armando then knocks him cold. And, muttering anti-gay epithets, takes his money and his wallet.

The kid whose name is Elder is astonished a few days later when Armando shows up at his street corner again, flashes a wad of cash and offers to pay him to come back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FROM AFAR")

CASTRO: (As Armando, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: There's more in the apartment, says Armando then turns on his heel. A confused Elder watches him go. But a little later...

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

MONDELLO: ...And a strange connection is made. A strange and ultimately shattering connection as depicted by first-time writer, director Lorenzo Vigas. "From Afar" qualifies as quite a filmmaking debut - bold both in its subject matter and in the way it lets its characters be flat out perplexing.

There are things they have in common. They both despise their fathers, for instance. Elder repairs cars, and you could say as a denture-maker, Armando repairs mouths. But in most respects, these two men could hardly be more different. Watch them eating in a restaurant, and it's almost as if they're stand-ins for Venezuela's stratified society - Armando cultivated, dabbing his lips with a napkin, Elder wolfing his food, barely able to hold a fork.

Their emotions and interactions are equally desperate. When Elder gets beaten up, Armando pays for a nurse to heal him. And Elder repays that kindness by trying to steal things from Armando's apartment. Then incongruously, the two go together to a family birthday party.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FROM AFAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Spanish)

MONDELLO: Filmmaker Vigas has previously worked in documentaries which may be why in "From Afar" he observes the aggression and violence of Caracas in an almost wordless, uninflected way. His camera often stands at a slight remove from his characters as they circle each other, misunderstanding and misinterpreting.

How could they not be wary of reaching across the social gulf that divides them? Self-protection for both of these men has always meant detachment and distance and, for Armando at least, even intimacy can only be safely practiced from afar. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.