Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Desde allá


Middle-aged prosthetic dentist Armando (Alfredo Castro) has a curious little habit. Stalking young men in the streets of Caracas, he flashes them with some cash as an invitation to come to his apartment, where his MO is always the same: ask the boy to turn around, take his shirt off, and pull his pants down halfway as he pleasures himself on his couch. With no physical contact whatsoever, he then gives the money and calls it a day. His new prospect is Élder (Luis Silva), a juvenile delinquent who refuses to play by his rules and even robs him twice. But Armando is not to be deterred. Challenged, he follows him around some more. When the kid is beaten black and blue, he takes him home and nurses him back to health. But just when the teenager feels obliged to reciprocate and finally gives it a shot, the old man backs away, further confusing the lad. As he is shunned by both family and friends in homophobic Venezuela, he starts to feel more attached to his benefactor, but the feeling doesn’t seem mutual anymore.

So this film won the Golden Lion in Venice, which is a bit weird because it seems to be a cliché narrative straight out of the old-gay-guy-preying-on-younger-men genre, with a lot of awkward silence and crafty shots that make everything look artsy.

We also see Armando following his father around, in more glamorous and first-world looking locales as opposed to Élder’s slums and government housing. The two seem two have an antagonistic relationship, but this subplot is never ever expounded, as if it was just left dangling there to justify the old man’s quirks, or perhaps draw a parallelism between him and the boy which can serve as a common ground for them to build their relationship on. The film leaves you hanging this way, making you think that there will be a revelation that can help you empathize more with the characters, when in fact there is none.

Both actors did a great job in the acting department, though. Castro’s subdued attack on his role accentuates Armando’s detachment to almost anything in general, of being the perpetual voyeur who wouldn’t dare risk engagement. Seeing him following young boys around the city can be easily dismissed as a nasty perversion, but him doing the same to his father, this time with a tone far from the vicinity of sexual, adds another layer to his already mysterious persona. On the contrary, Silva is good for a newcomer, although such a role can easily be played by anyone with street credibility. At least he makes Élder’s confusion more evident and less artificial, although the 180 turn is still hard to believe.

What I appreciate about the movie is the tour of the city. Venezuela is a difficult country to get into, in general, and it doesn’t appear to be that tourist friendly given the current situation there. As Armando follows his prospects around the streets of Caracas, we, the viewers, get a sneak peek of the Venezuelan capital in return. The thing is, there aren’t too many outside shots of this sort to give us a more detailed perspective of the place. Instead, what we get to witness is a teaser of sorts, which may or may not pique your interest in this particular city. At least the director opted for subtlety in showcasing poverty porn by focusing more on the relationship of the characters, but even that angle is a bit wobbly.

Élder’s motivation is difficult to grasp. Seeing how he robs Armando twice, it’s easy to predict that he will just do it again. These are thugs accustomed to rough life in the streets. Not to generalize, but many of them will just take advantage of you. That should be the number one rule on their survival handbook. And so when he suddenly gets a change of heart, it feels unnatural. It’s as if the director is trying hard to manipulate you into believing that these two are suddenly a love team that you can ship. That is not important, however, as Armando himself is not convinced either. Or maybe he is just downright eccentric. What can we say, they both have daddy issues!

I just saw Ang Babaeng Humayo last month. It won the Golden Lion in Venice this year, and the similarities in plot and storyline seem to suggest a pattern here. You have someone from the older generation trying hard to deal with unresolved issues from the past. And then someone way younger, a borderline hopeless case, comes along. They form a bond, and the latter ends up providing the much needed closure for the former, which consequently pushes him/her away for some reason. Of course, this is a hasty generalization, but one can’t help but notice the resemblance. Two years in a row, you know!

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