In Lorenzo Vigas’s From Afar, desire is necessarily bound up with death, as a man of a certain age, Armando (Alfredo Castro), cruises for not-so-willing young straight men in public places in Caracas by showing them a handful of cash. At first, Armando’s fascination with these men seems limited to visual and verbal pleasure. And perhaps to the thrill of making a mockery out of sexual labels when cold cash turns out to be more enticing than genitalia.
Armando takes blue-collar young men home, sits down on his comfortable chair, and tells them to undress without ever touching them. But when he picks up a reluctant 17-year-old, Elder (Luis Silva), touch becomes inevitable as the boy knocks Armando unconscious after calling him an “old fag” and promptly steals his wallet. The two men then develop an uncanny relationship undergirded by the socio-economic abyss that separates them, but also what intersects them: an estranged relationship with their respective fathers.
Similar to Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys, where a bourgeois French man and an illegal Eastern European boy live out a precarious love story besieged by violence, only one of the partners in From Afar, if any, may claim “gay” as a category of identification. What pushes Armando and Elder’s erotic rapport forward is precisely the impossibility of the encounter, which is literalized in Vigas’s film by the impossibility of sexual contact. Armando’s voyeurism isn’t a sexual preliminary, nor a product of his objects of desire’s reluctance to go further, but a survival mechanism in a city where body parts are like landmines ready to set off old wounds in both receiver and giver.
One of the only questions Elder asks Armando is: “Did your father ever beat you?” Even as they grow emotionally closer, if not dependent, they’re never able to consummate their strange affection, as one is inevitably repelled by the other’s attempts to engage in any kind of touch that isn’t aggression. The acts of beating and killing are portrayed as Caracas’s lingua franca not just between these (non-)lovers, but everyone around them: fathers who are locked up in jail, sons wishing their fathers dead, and young men who show up unannounced at billiard halls to attack their rivals with iron bars.
Armando and Elder’s relationship dramatizes the pragmatic hopelessness of a relationship between straight and gay men, a rather perverse one considering gay men’s propensity for electing straight men as their objects of desire, and in a way that has rarely been seen in film. In a scene where Armando takes Elder to a restaurant and watches him eat, he dares to ask the teen a trivial question, specifically what city he was born in, to which he replies by turning his head to the side and asking the waiter to bring him more fries and a beer.
From Afar’s crucial importance as an enlightening and uncompromising piece of queer cinema is in the way it renders visible a very complicated, and awfully repressed, truth not only about gay desire, but desire in general: the fact that wanting seems so contingent on the unavailability of the object. The film suggests that when straight men finally offer some kind of reciprocity, they lose their status as proper objects of desire. This is a trauma that Vigas represents with both delicateness and brutality in all of its dishearteningly rigged repetitiveness as the impasse gets relived from son to father, then from lover to lover, until something, or someone, explodes.