Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 09, 2016 5:43 am 
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Power trips

Lorenzo Vigas' subtle and powerful first film reminded me of what Graham Greene said of Patricia Highsmith's writng: that she "created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger." The great Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, who starred in Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero and Post Mortem, is the ideal guide into such a world, one, here, of morally suspect creepiness and unpredictable menace. It turns out the young Luis Silva is an ideal companion to take us with Castro on this trip. Like Robin Campillo's Eastern Boys, about a middle class gay Frenchman who enters into a relationship with a young Checnean refugee he picks up in Paris' Gare du Nord, Armando, whom Castro plays, walks, willingly, into personal danger when he lures a hostile and poor youth (Silva) in Caracas to his respectable home.

It's been said Armando wants dominance more than love. But we really don't know what he wants. Alfredo Castro here carries with him some of the secret menace that gave Tony Manero its edge. Luis Silva is an actor full of surprises that match his needy, damaged character, the cocky street boy, Elder. The two characters, Armando and Elder, begin with mutual attacks, but they approach each other out of need. The needs are multiple, especially in the case of Elder, who has nothing: a need for money, a need for love, a need for a father, and the roles aren't clear. Elder's situation resembles that of the late Patrice Chéreau's incredibly powerful film of the early Eighties, L'Homme blessé, where a suddenly discovered gay streak is so powerful it threatens self-destruction. Luis Silva isn't perhaps the actor Jean-Hugues Anglade was, but he has his own liquid vulnerability, pain, and violence.

Vigas sustains the danger through his film's every minute -- I found myself holding my breath much of the way. During the last sixteen minutes a whole new danger arises to renew the tension. It's perhaps a predictable one, but still gripping, and devastating in its implications. Like Eastern Boys only more so, this is a gay romance that's also a crime story, and the two strains compliment and intensify each other.

Both man and boy are clearly damaged, but with a dangerous contrast of wealth and power. Armando, who's a well-off dental prosthetist in Caracas (but from afar: Castro is Chilean), suffered a childhood trauma that has made him unable to seek normal intimacy. Elder's father, he tells, beat him unmercifully and is now gone. Normally Armando pays street boys to undress while he masturbates. Elder's violent hostility when he seeks to play this game with him excites and attracts them both, it turns out.

Vigas, whose auspicious debut has support from prominent Mexican film figures, not only uses Larraín's Chilean star Alfredo Castro, whose performance gives off a powerful sense of alienation, hostility, and need, but also Larraín's dp, Sergio Armstrong, whose use of intense depth of field and soft focus gives a feel that's both chilly and remote, and alluring. Everything comes together here, directorial control and tense pacing, ideal casting and cinematography, a seamless use of locations, above all the story. As Guy Lodge observes in his Venice review for Variety, though this is by Iñárritu's former writer Guillermo Arriaga and has hints of Amores Perros-levels of danger and violence, the unnecessary symbolism is thankfully missing here: it's straight, compulsively-watchable action with no embroidery. A remarkable first film, and no surprise it won the top Venice award.

From Afar/Desde allá, 93 mins, debuted at Venice 10 Sept. 2015, winning the Golden Lion for best picture; 10 other awards and nominations and 18 other festivals including Toronto, London, Miami and Hong Kong. French theatrical release 4 May 2016, under the unfortunate title Les amants de Caracas, with a disappointing reception (AlloCiné press rating 2.8/5 based on 10 reviews). Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 2016. The US release in NYC by Strand comes 8 June 2016 (Film Forum), 17 June in Los Angeles. See also the review by David Rooney (Hollywood Reporter). Reviewed by Stephen Holden, NY Times: "The masterly feature debut of the Venezuelan filmmaker Lorenzo Vigas, the movie looks at the world through the icy stare of Armando (the brilliant 60-year-old Chilean star Alfredo Castro), who is first seen cruising and picking out his prey." A NYTimes "Critics' Pick."


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