(Photo: Film Forum)

The most highly anticipated titles at last year’s Venice Film Festival included Anomalisa, Beasts Of No Nation, The Danish Girl, and A Bigger Splash, screening alongside new films from the likes of Atom Egoyan, Marco Bellocchio, Alexander Sokurov, and even the long (cinematically) dormant Laurie Anderson. So it came as something of a surprise when the jury, headed by Alfonso Cuarón, wound up awarding its top prize to a movie written and directed by a complete unknown: Lorenzo Vigas from Venezuela. From Afar is Vigas’ first feature, and it would be nice to report that it heralds a vital and significant new voice, especially given Venezuela’s generally low profile on the world-cinema stage. Unfortunately, Cuarón and company appear to have been overly impressed by glum silences, withheld information, and some amateurish aesthetic choices. The film is almost aggressively unconvincing, and suffers even more in comparison with the very similar French movie Eastern Boys, which screened at Venice (but not In Competition) two years earlier.

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Their commonality involves the relationship between a respectable middle-aged man and a young punk, which begins as a criminal act and then evolves into something more tender. Here, we initially meet Armando (Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, best known for his collaborations with Pablo Larraín) jerking off to the sight of a kid he picked up on the street and paid to undress for him. This appears to be Armando’s sole form of sexual gratification, but his next attempt goes poorly: Another kid, Elder (Luis Silva), clocks him hard in the face when the time comes to drop trou then steals Armando’s wallet and flees. This doesn’t faze Armando, who shows up at the garage where Elder works with a bandage on his face and offers him more cash. Still hostile at first, Elder softens after Armando nurses him back to health following a beating (from someone else) and is soon making advances, which the older man sternly rejects. The two also bond over their shitty fathers—Elder’s is in prison, and Armando’s is apparently not a nice man.

That “apparently” is necessary because From Afar never reveals what Armando’s father did, even as Armando stalks him around the city. Dad has recently returned to Caracas, and Armando is angry at him for something that happened long ago, but the nature of this trangression remains a mystery. We’re presumably meant to assume sexual abuse, but Vigas pushes the coyness to a ludicrous extreme. At one point, he has Armando follow Dad into a nearly empty elevator… and say nothing for the duration of the ride; the lengthy shot makes a point of keeping Dad, who also remains silent, just out of frame, so that we don’t even know how (or if) he reacts to his son’s presence. Given the subsequent lack of follow-up, this is neither ambiguous nor provocative; it’s just evasive. Likewise, the viewer is asked to fill in complete blanks regarding both of the main characters’ psyches, as almost nothing either of them does makes any sense (though the film’s ending arguably implies an ulterior motive for Armando’s actions). Eastern Boys constructed a 20-minute set piece that makes its offbeat relationship credible. From Afar just has people make bizarre, self-destructive choices and assumes viewers will supply the dramaturgy.

Castro, as ever, holds the screen with his uniquely creepy charisma, despite having been given only wounded stoicism to play in this case. (Alfredo smiles exactly once in the entire movie, and it’s like the clouds lifting.) That is, he holds the screen whenever you can actually see him. Like many first-time directors, Vigas is so eager to show that he can communicate ideas visually that he goes overboard. Shallow focus dominates the first 10 to 15 minutes in particular, with almost every shot featuring one sharp foreground object surrounded by a sea of blurry half shapes. What Vigas intends this approach to signify is unclear, though it does at least reflect the movie’s title. Other choices—like an early dinner scene in which Armando and Elder, though seated at the same table, are separated by a support beam that nearly bisects the frame—are so obvious that they’re almost condescending. All in all, From Afar plays like a typical first feature, with ambition outstripping execution by a hefty margin. It may lead to better movies, but Anomalisa was robbed.

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