Using his privilege as a weapon, a middle-aged man roams the streets of Caracas, searching young hustlers to satisfy his conflicting desires.
Dangerously calm, Armando (Alfredo Castro of The Club fame) surveys his surroundings until his chosen body for the day agrees to his peculiar sexual transactions. When Elder (Luis Silva), a hyper-masculine teenage thug, becomes Armando’s new obsession, and money alone proves insufficient to gain the boy’s respect, the extent of Armando’s hunger for power is slowly revealed.
Lorenzo Vigas’ debut feature, From Afar (Desde allá in Spanish), is a tense psychological drama with tinges of homoeroticism. It unravels into meticulously written scenarios that turn the initial dynamic of predator and victim into a much more ambiguous affair.
Spearheaded by Castro’s unnerving lead performance, the film juxtaposes two distinct characters within the context of Venezuelan society. When they collide, only the stronger will escape unharmed. Vigas’ assured stylistic choices and directorial nuances earned him the 2015 Golden Lion, top prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Vigas spoke to MovieMaker from Mexico, where he is now working on his second feature film. He opened up about the difficult situation of his homeland, his rejection of rehearsals and the persistence of homophobia in Latin America.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Armando, one of the film’s protagonists, relates to his surroundings more like an observer than an active participant. Tell me about the importance of distance and the lack of physical contact as dramatic elements in From Afar.
Lorenzo Vigas (LV): It’s very important. Armando is a character that doesn’t have the capacity to connect with people. He interacts with everything from a distance. Elder is completely the opposite. He is very physical, just like we Venezuelans are. Venezuelans speak loudly, and we touch each other a lot. Armando is the opposite. He is like the other side of the mirror, which, perhaps, is present-day Venezuela, where people who were very sociable now don’t communicate. Communication among people has been cut in the crisis we are going through. Armando represents the opposite of what Venezuelans are, but on the other hand also functions as a metaphor of the current situation where there is no communication among social classes or between the government and the people.
This wasn’t my intention. When I wrote the screenplay, I thought it would be very interesting to write a character like Armando, but when I see the film within the context of Venezuela’s current situation I realized that it also works as a metaphor of that. Distance between social classes. Distance between the government and the people in a country.
MM: The differences between the two protagonists are also evident in the art direction and the spaces that each of them inhabits. Elder is always seen in disorder, while Armando’s place is very meticulously arranged.
LV: Armando’s house is frozen in time, frozen in the ’70s. He lives there surrounded by the memories of his mother, who is very important despite not being present [because she died]. We see her photo and we know this was the space where he interacted with her; that’s why it’s sacred. That’s why he always comes back to this house. That’s why I think the ending of the film also has to do with going back to that place and to the memory of his mother. She is such an important character—the opposite of the father, whom we actually see and with whom he has a very tumultuous relationship, probably of abuse. For Armando the comforting memory is that of his mother. The house had to reflect that. The distinction between Armando and Elder’s worlds in terms of the art direction, as well as the locations, is very important. Finding the locations took months.
MM: Tell me about creating a singular visual aesthetic for the film, in which the city of Caracas is portrayed with a distinct color palette, and where intimate spaces are observed from a unique perspective.
LV: While looking for locations I was trying to avoid the color green. In Caracas there are a lot of trees, but for Armando’s world we searched for locations where there were no trees. Places that were grayer, so when he goes to the beach the contrast with the blue of the ocean would be greater. That was important. The color palette comes from those locations, which had to do with Armando’s psychological state.
Besides this, DP Sergio Armstrong and I watched a lot of films from directors such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Bruno Dumont. We then made the decision to shoot with anamorphic lenses, because we were thinking about closed spaces like the lab where Armando works and his house. One might think that anamorphic lenses only work great for landscapes, which they definitely do, but they also work in smaller spaces because they help you separate the distances between things.
MM: Would you say that Armando is a character of repressed violence, ready to explode at any moment? And why did you feel Chilean actor Alfredo Castro was best suited for the role?
LV: He is a guy with a heavy emotional burden that he’s had for many years, which explodes in certain moments. That’s why I wanted to work with Alfredo Castro. He has an impressive ability to restrain his emotions, but at the same time he is very expressive with small gestures. He was perfect for the character. I knew that this film would have several close-ups and tight frames on faces, in which a lot of things are said with a gaze. He is capable of conveying emotions while also holding back some of them.
MM: Luis Silva plays Elder, the young mechanic. What was your directorial approach with your two leads, Castro being a seasoned actor, while Silva has much less experience?
LV: Luis had never worked on film. This is his first film. Alfredo read the screenplay and from there we started working on his character. He is very active, likes to provide ideas, to talk critically about certain scenes and make suggestions. That’s the way he interacts with the character and the story. He is a great pleasure to work with. He was also very involved in deciding his wardrobe.
However, we never rehearsed. From the beginning we decided to seek a certain freshness and purity on set. What we did instead was talk extensively about his character and his motivations. Rehearsals would only happen once we were already on the set. Sometimes we would shoot a lot of takes of each scene because we were rehearsing while shooting. Sometimes great things would come out from these initial takes.
On the other hand, with Luis it was very different because I didn’t want him to know much about the story. I wanted him to discover the story little by little. I didn’t want him to intellectualize his character. He would learn his lines 20 minutes before each shooting each scene. Then we would start shooting right away. The two methods for Alfredo and Luis were very different, but none of it was rehearsed. What we did with Luis and all the other younger non-actors in the film was have a workshop for about three or four months. In this workshop we would not rehearse scenes from the film, but we would do acting exercises and relaxation techniques for them to feel comfortable with each other. We also did some exercises in front of a camera to help them not be nervous in front of it while shooting.
MM: Armando’s sexual desires seem to emanate from trauma. This tormented sexuality pushes him to find relief in a less-than-healthy way. Why was this aspect of the character significant for you? Do you feel that the perception towards homosexuality in your country has changed at all?
LV: I think he does what he does because his father did it to him. For me this element is very important in the film, because this is a film about power and how power works in Latin American societies. In Venezuela there is this idea that those who are in power are malandros, or scoundrels. We call young men who are thieves or criminals malandros, In countries like Mexico, the equivalent would be a powerful drug trafficker. In Latin America, these criminals also have the respect of the people because sometimes they share their money with the neighborhood.
In the film Elder, a malandro, faces Armando, a homosexual who turns out to be much more powerful than he is. In a sense the film is about two alpha males that clash, but after the scene involving a knife, Elder goes from alpha to beta. Their relationship changes following this incident. This has to do with the power struggles in Latin America. That’s why homosexuality is an important theme in the film—it’s more about power than eroticism.
Latin American societies still reject homosexuality. It’s very true that in Venezuela there is still a lot of homophobia, particularly in poor neighborhoods. This makes the ending of the film even more terrible, because this rejection happens in real life in my country. Most mothers would much rather have their sons be criminals than homosexuals. Homophobia is still very present.
MM: The fact that the homosexual character in the film is more powerful than its counterpart definitely goes against the stereotypical perception of what a gay character is.
LV: That’s exactly why I did it. This way it becomes about questioning why criminals, murderers and thieves hold power. It’s also about prejudice toward homosexuality.
MM: Given the current political and social situation, how difficult is it to make films in Venezuela?
LV: Harder than in any other country in Latin America today, because of the current political situation. But the current situation has nothing to do with the situation two years ago, which is when we shot the film. Nowadays the circumstances are a million times worse. It’s very unsafe to shoot in the street. We have the highest inflation rate in the world. Any amount of money you have quickly devalues. You have to spend it as soon as possible. That is an additional pressure during moviemaking. On the other hand, I felt that this story was perfect to be told in Venezuela. The best location to shoot this film was Caracas. I’m happy to have done it. Venezuela does have all these problems, but at the same time Caracas has a very special cinematic quality that I wanted to take advantage of. Venezuela is a wonderful country to make films. Despite all the inconveniences and risks that exist today, I think they are worth taking a chance on.
MM: Have people in Venezuela since the film yet? If so, what has been the reaction given its controversial subject matter? The fact that it won the top prize at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world is probably a great selling point.
LV: From Afar won the most important prize of any film in the history of Venezuelan cinema, so everyone there is dying to see it, but it hasn’t opened theatrically yet. It will open in theaters there in September. We’ve had to postpone the release. The film was supposed to open in April, but there is an electricity crisis in Venezuela because it hasn’t rained and the dams have dried out. There is also a lack of maintenance to the hydroelectric system and there are no coal-based electric plants. The crisis is such that at 7 p.m. everyday the power is cut off for shopping centers, thus there are no movie theaters opened after that time. These power cuts started in April just as we were about to release the film. Now the release is set for September 2 when we hope that the service is reestablished. In any case people are going crazy over the film and they want to see it. The film has won many other awards besides the Golden Lion in Venice, so people are aware of it. I think it’s a film that will cause strong reactions across the board, which is interesting. I hope it inspires a dialogue. At a time when there is no more dialogue, I hope the film could encourage people to talk.
MM: Would you consider returning to Venezuela to shoot another project in the future? Are you currently working on a new feature or short project?
LV: If my next idea is ideal for Venezuela I will make it there without a doubt. I’m someone who likes to take risks and each project has to be shot where the story can be better told. I’m about to shoot a film in Mexico because the story works the best there. This will be the third installment of my trilogy about the notion of the absent Latin American father. The first part was a short titled “Elephants Never Forget” (“Los Elefantes Nunca Olvidan”), which everyone can see on YouTube; From Afar is the second part; and the third part is titled La Caja. It centers on a mass grave and that’s why it seems better to make it in Mexico.
I’ve have an obsession with absent fathers in Latin America since I made the short film. I don’t know why I have this obsession but I do. One doesn’t choose his obsessions; they choose you. There is this archetype of the Latin American father that is not only a figure in the family structure, but also is the leader or president. We are always waiting for a savior to come take the place of that paternal figure that was never there. That idea is very present in Latin America. MM
From Afar opened in theaters June 8, 2016, courtesy of Strand Releasing.