MIFF Review – Desde Allá

First time writer/director Lorenzo Vigas hits the ground running with Desde Allá (From Afar) the story of an affluent middle-aged man in Caracas and his consuming desire for a local teen delinquent.

Quiet, 50-ish Armando (Alfredo Castro) lives on his own in relative wealth, his only sexual release is taking home teenage boys he picks up off the street. They’re not so much hustlers as reluctant young men desperate for money. No physical contact is involved, Armando’s preference is to view them from behind at a slight remove. For this he is willing to pay handsomely.

On one such occasion, he brings home Elder (Luis Silva), a 17-year old ruffian who isn’t prepared to indulge Armando in the slightest. Instead he assaults the older man and takes off with his money.

Far from being deterred by the attack, Armando develops an interest in the youth which only intensifies with each hostile rebuttal.

After Elder is badly beaten by a local gang, Armando takes him in and looks after him. Immobilised, Elder has no option but to stay in the man’s company. Initially he sees this as an opportunity to swindle his admirer for a bigger slice of his savings. Slowly though he lets his guard down, disarmed by the measured compassion that Armando displays towards him.

Despite the difference in their age and social status, the two find a common ground in the lack of a father figure in their lives. Reluctant to go into details, Armando will only say that he detests his father and has nothing to do with him. This seems to fascinate Elder, whose own father abandoned him at an early age. As Elder gradually opens himself up to Armando, so begins a shift in power between the two.

As Armando, veteran Chilean actor Castro carries the bulk of the film’s emotional weight with a performance of commanding melancholic stillness. Silva’s restless, kinetic energy makes for an effective contrast, the emotional depths of his Elder gradually being eked out from his initially intimidating exterior.

It’s impossible to view Desde Allá and not think of the recent Eastern Boys, which featured a similar dynamic between its two main characters. But while the French film took on some highly arresting twists and turns, defying any easy genre classification, Desde Allá is more modest in scope. In fact, it feels like a throwback to earlier queer cinema, like the 1993 Cuban drama Strawberry and Chocolate. Armando’s lonely lifestyle and willingness to be abused hardly makes him a poster boy for the LGBTI community, but that says more about the attitudes towards homosexuality in Venezuela than Vigas’ sophistication as a filmmaker.

Based on a story Vigas developed with frequent Alejandro G. Iñárritu collaborator,  Guillermo Arriaga, the film goes beyond queer issues. This is a study of masculinity in Latino culture and about relationships between fathers and sons as well as being a sobering portrait of the everyday violence and poverty in Caracas.

Desde Allá took home the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, awarded by a jury Alfonso Cuarón presided over. Narratively it may not seem the most original film out there, but Vigas’ experience as a documentarian has served him well. There’s an authenticity to his characters and the world they inhabit that make this a surprisingly rewarding viewing experience.  

✭✭✭✭

Desde Allá is currently screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival

Richard Leathem @dickiegee