MovieMaker‘s weekly series “Foreign Contenders” will feature interviews with the heavyweight helmers behind their respective countries’ entries for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Each week, we’ll explore the subjects, issues and modes and means of production that have placed moviemakers’ foreign features in the running for international Oscar gold. The Academy releases their shortlist in December and will announce the eventual nominees in January. This year, a record 85 films have been submitted.
In Lorenzo Vigas’ From Afar, two loners in Caracas divided by class, violence and their own emotional ambivalence seek refuge, even if unstable, in their toxic love and the power struggle that it emanates. The film is a fascinating psychological autopsy of father figures, homophobia and economic inequality in Latin America. More than a year after stunning the Venice Film Festival and walking away with its top prize, the Venezuelan feature continues to inspire strong reactions from viewers worldwide. The intimate yet undeniably brutal battles it portrays resonate thanks in no small part t0 Vigas’ vigorous directorial voice and his superb stars: Chilean thespian Alfredo Castro and fresh-faced Luis Silva.
Both actors embody their characters’ respective trauma with unnerving honesty, which opens the door for a tempestuous relationship to unravel. Castro, whose work with Pablo Larraín has catapulted him to the forefront of Latin American moviemaking, plays Armando, a middle-class man who uses his financial advantage to sexually exploit young men, while Silva transforms into Elder, a hyper masculine trickster who relates to his environment through force. From Afar is a two-hander that capitalizes on both actors’ virtues, simmers them and runs wild with the explosive results.
Among the film’s most notable supporters is Venezuelan star Edgar Ramirez, who has been a relentless ally as an executive producer and serving as the film’s ambassador in Hollywood. Ramirez, who has a longtime friendship with Vigas, initially wanted to be involved in the project years ago as an actor, but he was always too young to play Armando and too old to play Elder. Yet, his fervor for this astonishing debut hasn’t faltered and he continues to sing its praises to get it noticed in the fierce Oscar race.
MovieMaker spoke with Vigas back in June for the theatrical release of the film in the US. (Additionally, Vigas offered some comments on the technical aspects of the film’s production). Now, as the film makes its way to Academy voters to consider for the Best Foreign Language Film award, we sat down with Castro and Silva to dish on their triangular partnership with the director that gave birth to this riveting feature.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Walk us through the process of working with Lorenzo Vigas. How were his approaches to directing each of you distinct?
Alfredo Castro (AC): I’m a man from the theater. I’ve worked much less film, but I’ve been lucky to work with two young directors, Lorenzo and Pablo Larraín, and I’ve worked with both of them since they were making their first features. So, the thing about me telling him, “Listen to me,” is also because I’m much older and have a certain experience with dramaturgy. Humbly I said, “Listen to me about a couple of things.” I met Lorenzo via Skype, and we immediately had a relationship based on affection and respect, and then we met in person. I start working on a role as soon as I read it. I was coming out of working with Larraín who also is very economical in terms of dialogue. His texts also have a lot of dialogue at first and then he cleans it up and throws most of it away until the scenes become almost mute. Lorenzo works similarly, so the collaboration was beautiful.
Luis Silva (LS): On my end, I was afraid because I had never played a character like Elder, which involved me kissing another man. When Lorenzo told me what it entailed, I thought about it and I said, “I’m an actor. That’s nothing.” There are actors out there who do much more difficult things than simply kissing a man. I did feel pressure because I knew I was working with Alfredo Castro. Lorenzo told me to watch some of the films he has been in, and I thought, “God, I can’t believe I’m going to work with this man.” There was a lot of pressure and I wanted to end each scene very quickly. That’s why I overacted at first. During the first couple of days I knew I was doing it wrong and I felt terrible, but I didn’t want to tell Lorenzo that. Thankfully Alfredo was there to tell me, “Stay calm. Listen.” I’m so thankful to him because I learned from him.
AC: It was mutual. For me as an actor that has done more things in theater and film, to encounter a young actor that’s so talented and sincere puts you in a state of mind in which it’s impossible to act. It all becomes very natural and I had to adapt to his tone, his time and his reactions, which were sometimes very spontaneous. His character is that way, so I feel that ultimately we didn’t act much, we just were.
MM: Alfredo, did you know what was going to happen in every scene, or were there things Lorenzo concealed from you as well?
AC: I knew what was going to happen but not how it was going to happen, because that depended on Lorenzo. I love how Lorenzo works. He arrives on a set and, right there, sees how the light is, how the atmosphere is and everyone’s mood is and from that modifies the scene to make it better based on those things. That’s wonderful.
MM: How do you perceive your character and his motivation? What does he want or long for?
AC: I tried not to have much judgement about him. My approach was much more emotional. I was very impressed by his sensibility. Lorenzo did something beautiful in the way he juxtaposed Caracas, the city that is the real protagonist of the film, with a silent being like Armando. That contrast is precious. I tried not to judge him but I knew he was very lonely and that there was a love story with his father, as well as a story of heartbreak with the young man that Luis plays. It’s a story of wounded love and betrayal.
MM: It’s also a story about power balance.
AC: The film depicts a triangle that is very typical in Latin America. There is the father at the top, who is a multimillionaire who lives gloriously with money, cars, and young women, and new children. Then there is Armando, a middle-class man. And then there is Elder, a young thug. That pyramid of power is very interesting, socially.
LS: I didn’t know my father. I’ve seen him twice in my life.
MM: Luis, did your father’s abandonment of you make you understand the character of Armando, or your own character, Elder, better?
LS: Yes, but I also didn’t know my character at first. I discovered him. I would meet with Lorenzo each day and he would tell me what path to take. It’s difficult to work on a character without knowing exactly who he is. I discovered him little by little. Even though I could have, I never wanted to grab the screenplay and read it behind Lorenzo’s back. I didn’t do it because I trusted him. When he asked me to be one of the leads in his films, I saw in his eyes that I was going to have the opportunity I was looking for. Of course, I had it, because From Afar is still being watched around the world.
However, I do know people like Elder in real life. I relate to him and his life on the streets because I grew up in a neighborhood where people don’t have money to get by. There is a lot of myself in the character. I’m a person who likes to take risks, and sometimes I make rushed decisions. I live day-by-day intensely, and as I discovered this character I started adding more and more elements of other people I knew. That was the best way to construct him. On the other hand, I’ve never experienced a romantic relationship like the one in the film, so that part was foreign to me and that’s where my job as an actor, and being able to perform something I’m not familiar with, came in.
MM: Alfredo, you mentioned that Caracas is a crucial aspect of the story because of how dynamic and chaotic a location it is…
AC: I didn’t know Caracas beforehand, but I had certain affection for the city because my siblings were exiled in Caracas. They lived many years there. I never went then, but I had a fantastic image of the city in my mind because it was during a glorious time for Caracas. In the 1970s the city was burgeoning. There was a lot of money, a lot of jobs and lot of happiness. When I went there to shoot this film I encountered the city going through a very rough time as the economic crisis started. In that particular corner sometimes people would scream out, “There is chicken,” or any other food. There was chaos, and sometimes I wouldn’t even get in line as we were shooting. The process was very alive.
Lorenzo Vigas (LV): Arri Alexa. It has good latitude.
LV: Lomo Anamorphic. Normally Anamorphic lenses are used in open spaces, landscapes. Here we wanted to use them here in interior spaces—Armand’s apartment, his laboratory. We wanted to mark the separation and distance between things—the possibility of having different things in the same frame separated from each other, “from afar.” To mark the separation between Armando and the world was important.
LV: No[, I did not shoot on film,] because I prefer to have the freedom to achieve good performances. I generally shoot a lot of takes. I shoot all the rehearsals.
LV: We mostly used natural lighting.
LV: We wanted to have an image that would reflect Armando’s inner soul—pale and washed-out colors.
LV: I was financed by the Venezuelan Center of Cinematography, CNAC. MM