The opening shots of "From Afar," Lorenzo Vigas' assuredly tense and roiling debut feature, focus on the back of a man's head as he slowly approaches a crowded bus stop. You do eventually get a good look at him from the front, but the sight isn't much more revealing — not at first, anyway. He's played by Alfredo Castro, a Chilean actor whose face here is a carefully chiseled mask of impassivity, touched by a solemnity that always seems to be on the verge of cracking, as if he were contemplating some wry, private joke.
Until now, Castro has been best known for appearing in a handful of films directed by his countryman Pablo Larraín — namely "The Club," in which he played an ex-priest deluded and defrocked by his wayward desires, and "Post Mortem," where his grim death's-head stare made him ideal casting as an assistant coroner. The character he plays in "From Afar" could be a sort of spiritual cousin to those other men: a gay, middle-aged dental technician named Armando who lives in Caracas, Venezuela, and who attends to personal and professional matters alike in the same sterile, precise manner.
You get an immediate sense of this from that first scene, which follows Armando as he commissions and brings home a young male prostitute, acting with wordless discretion and practiced skill. Their encounter, during which he asks the hustler to drop his pants and face the wall, involves an exchange of money but nothing else. Even when attending to his most basic urges, Armando prefers to look but not touch.
That hands-off approach finds a subliminal echo in Vigas' meticulously framed images, which, in keeping with the movie's title, allow us to regard the characters at a careful remove. The use of the ultra-widescreen 2.66:1 aspect ratio (by the gifted cinematographer Sergio Armstrong) and the frequent blurring of the background are more than mere stylistic affectations; they convey a clear sense of how one man circles another, and how the very air between them can become charged with undercurrents of distrust and desire. They're the right choices for a film about how people forge connections in a society that allows them no room for open intimacy.
One day, Armando makes the fateful mistake of picking up and bringing home Elder (Luis Silva), a thuggish young hothead who calls him a gay slur, knocks him unconscious and steals his money. Rather than reporting the crime or putting it behind him, Armando tracks Elder down at the auto shop where he works and forces a replay of their transaction, this time offering a wad of cash but demanding nothing in return. What these two men see in each other, and need from each other, is never explicitly spelled out. Are they enacting a particularly unfulfilling sadomasochistic ritual? A metaphor for the extreme selflessness of fatherhood? Perhaps it's both — the easy confusion of filial, paternal and sexual instincts is very much to Vigas' point.
A tightly coiled, beautifully acted relationship study that occasionally swerves in the direction of a gangland thriller, "From Afar" first premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival, where it beat out starrier competitors to win the Golden Lion — an accomplishment that immediately announced Vigas as an exciting new voice in Latin American cinema. (That impression was bolstered by some of the big names credited as producers on the film, including the Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramírez and the Mexican filmmakers Michel Franco, Gabriel Ripstein and Guillermo Arriaga, who is credited for the story along with Vigas.)
The filmmaking breathes with assurance, if also a touch of schematicism, particularly in the way Vigas establishes his characters' respective father issues. That Armando is filling a void left by Elder's abusive dad is fairly intuitive. The matter of Armando's own father, a long-absent figure who has recently resurfaced in the neighborhood, is more clumsily handled, and Vigas' refusal to spell out the details of their shattered history is the one respect in which his gift for understatement seems unnecessarily coy.
In all other respects, the performances fill in the details beautifully and often wordlessly. Silva, a striking newcomer, has a skinny frame, wiry limbs and full lips that can make him look rudely defiant one minute, sensuously needy the next, and he acts with an impulsive, eruptive physicality that the screen can barely contain. His Elder is the sort of guy who never telegraphs whether he's going to knock you sideways or — in the film's most heart-stopping moment — lunge in for a wholly unexpected embrace.
Castro's performance, though more reined-in, is no less expressive. We get to know Armando in small, guarded increments: an eye opening at a sudden rustle of movement, a thin smile suddenly tugging at the corners of his mouth, a series of slow, hesitant steps toward a table whose contents are destined to change everything. The tragedy of "From Afar" is that it turns out a story not of transformation so much as revelation, and what it reveals has perhaps been etched in stone from the beginning. The movie ends, as it begins, with a shot of Armando, and it is haunting in no small part because we seem to be seeing him clearly for the first time.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes