Looking, not touching, is the act of choice for a sexually wary gay man in “From Afar,” and his hands-off approach is shared by the expert storytelling in Venezuelan helmer Lorenzo Vigas’ pristinely poised but deeply felt debut feature. Rarely taking the path of cheap exposition where convincing character psychology will do, this smart, unsensationalized examination of the slow-blossoming relationship between a middle-aged loner and a young street tough trusts auds to make the necessary connections in a narrative that merges its characters’ respective father complexes to moving, equivocal effect. Discerningly realized and performed — with its reliable Chilean star Alfredo Castro giving a veritable master class in fine-point anguish — this Venice competish entry marks out Vigas as one of Latin American cinema’s more auspicious arrivals of recent years.
Given more crossover heft than most Venezuelan fare thanks to heavy Mexican input, “From Afar” boasts some heavyweight names on the producers’ bench, including Guillermo Arriaga and Michel Franco. (Local actor made good Edgar Ramirez takes an executive producer credit.) The pic has something of the emotionally provocative detachment favored by Franco, while the presence of Castro and d.p. Sergio Armstrong helps foster an immediate association with the most formally studied work of their regular collaborator, Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain. In narrative and tone, however, the film’s most obvious companion piece might be French filmmaker Robin Campillo’s 2013 Venice standout “Eastern Boys”: In portraying tentative queer sensuality, both films drift unhurriedly into genre territory.
For all these reference points, Vigas — who cut his directorial teeth on documentaries — arrives on the scene with a style very much his own. From the outset, his manipulation of focus and depth of field is particularly arresting, immediately establishing the alienated perspective of Armando (Castro), a well-off dental prosthetist living in Caracas, who is still haunted by childhood trauma that has prevented him forming many firm relationships as an adult. A graceful, largely wordless opening sequence, meanwhile, establishes that his only sexual encounters are non-reciprocal: Armando regularly procures young working-class men from the street, offering them money to undress while he masturbates.
It’s a risky habit to form in a community that, for the most part, views homosexuality with violent skepticism: When Armando is beaten up in his home by the less compliant Elder (21-year-old discovery Luis Silva), his stoically bruised reaction suggests it’s not the first time such a transaction has gone awry. Yet even in this brief, unpleasant rendezvous, viewers might wonder if they’re mistaken for detecting an intangible frisson of chemistry between this surly, volatile kid and his morose older admirer. Days later, when they run into each other on the street again, it’s clear that Elder’s interest has been piqued.
Using spare dialogue and keen attention to body language, Vigas and the actors chart their subtly growing attraction with delicate push-pull modulations; at one point, it’s Elder who appears the more aggressive seducer, even as he maintains a facade of straight-lad posturing with his friends. A first kiss in a public bathroom is a frenzied, near-animal action; a later sex scene, however, is inestimably more tender than the roughly clumsy moves we saw him try on a notional g.f. earlier. Armando’s assumed role in what becomes, almost imperceptibly, a romantic relationship is ambiguous, though he appears to reluctantly circle the gaping father-figure role in Elder’s life.
Vigas’ closely but quietly observed screenplay is pleasingly short on forced symbolic conclusions; though it’s from a story developed with former Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu scribe Arriaga, the latter’s penchant for elaborate structural ironies is not in evidence here. Viewers are called upon to perform some self-assembly, notably in a growingly crucial subplot involving Armando’s own father, who has resurfaced in the neighborhood after an extended absence. His presence is a point of needling concern to Armando and his sister, who share an unhappy family history. If Armando’s gradual, nervous embrace of Elder stems from an instinct to protect his younger self, the film is never so gauche as to say so. Neither are they inclined to explain themselves directly to each other: Misinterpretation of mutual wishes play into the pic’s fretful, elegantly escalated finale.
The grave-faced Castro is among the most calmly, economically expressive actors in the movies these days. Armando’s lifelong accumulation of hurt, disappointment and self-preserving reticence are carried and compressed in his long, loping gait, unassumingly straight stance and veiled, watchful countenance — on which even a fleeting half-smile briefly changes everything. He’s a wonderfully gentle and generous scene partner for the inexperienced but instantly dynamic Silva: The young actor plays Elder’s uncertain shuffling of selves with disarming vulnerability, conveying the tricky interior sense of a character repeatedly surprising himself.
Craft contributions are immaculate across the board. Isabela Monteiro de Castro’s serenely incisive editing conveys the characters’ shifting, not-always-coordinated degrees of awareness. Armstrong’s fastidious, sunwashed lensing recalls his work on Larrain’s “Post Mortem” in its use of widescreen proportions to position and disorientate human subjects in their environment. His location shooting, moreover, captures much incidental, context-enhancing life on Caracas’ cracked, strident sidewalks.