The name of Lorenzo Vigas’ debut feature film, “From Afar,” also defines his approach to filmmaking. What happens on-screen is sometimes of lesser prominence than the world, which he just teases off-screen from afar. The distance in his filmmaking is not one of the emotions; rather, it is the way he chooses to bring those emotions forward which gives the films an altogether peculiar feel. His writing leans more on the speculative, where things are never clearly laid out but are left for us to guess at and create meaning. Adding to it is the non-musical landscape, which leaves no room for any emotional interpretation of the grim visuals. Tripled up with the meticulous camera work, which seems like an extremely simplistic arrangement of moving images but becomes a quiet acquaintance to the story under the surface representing its world clearly. And at the center of it all, both films squeak a burning question about a father figure whose absence creates an excessive longing in the characters, making them do what they do. In “From Afar,” it was reflected through the hustle and bustle of a teenager and his eventual romance with a wealthy middle-aged man. Similarly, “The Box” is about a boy searching for his father, who is pronounced dead by the system.
Arriving in the city to collect his father’s remains found at a recently discovered communal grave, Hatzin is unconvinced and refuses to believe the fate of his father, more so after he spots a lookalike, Mario Enderle. After some forced follow-ups with Mario, where he almost beats him up when Hatzin refuses to go back, the two starts working together. Mario wears an all-yellow coat, something that eventually adds to his sinister character. Once Hatzin joins him, he is given a brown coat with yellow lines that covers the woolen sweater he was previously wearing, which probably was stitched by his grandmother. It is like the insertion of a new layer on the innocent body of Hatzin, a layer that makes him a completely different person, tuned to the violence that Mario brings in. His grandmother becomes an important moral factor for Hatzin. She is the only family he has, but he stops speaking to her after a point when he gets involved in a lot of shady business with Mario. At one instance, Mario asks him about her, and Hatzin says how he hasn’t spoken to her in days. Mario reflects on the importance of family and the fact that he also didn’t have a father growing up. The absence of a father figure in both of their lives creates a disjoint that has already made Mario into what he is and, going along the same lines, starts shaping Hatzin in his pivotal years. Through the interaction of the two, the collective longing of an entire generation is reciprocated that has come to age without a father, having lost them to drug wars in Mexico. It is a moment of triumph when an entire country’s suffering is mirrored through just the images of two individuals, and that’s what ‘The Box’ gets absolutely right. Towards the end, some personal conflicts of Hatzin are partially resolved as he makes a decision, but what still remains is the prevalent problem of growing up in a place where violence is an everyday thing, and so is losing your loved ones to petty crimes.
Lorenzo mentions in one of his interviews how he found the actor who plays Hatzin after a heavy search for someone who would perfectly fit in, not just in the physicality but also in the psychological aspects of a mind that longs for a father. In fact, the name for the character comes from the real name of the actor, Hatzin Leyva. This is an interesting choice to have an actor who is partly living that life, who understands the emptiness of what it could be like so that half the work is done. The entire film features Hatzin in almost all the frames, and he maintains an unflinching look throughout, with the heaviness in his head reflected just in the way he looks through his eyes. It is, again, a conscious choice to have it acted out that way so as to build on the grim atmosphere Lorenzo wants to maintain. We see Hatzin wearing just a deadly straight face with just minor shifts in the expressions as the situations demand. Sometimes it feels like the deadpan films of Aki Kaurismaki, the only difference being that Lorenzo doesn’t look at his world in a satirical, darkly comedic way. It is rather meant to bring out the menace and the utter isolation of its characters through all of these tropes, and they never lend in to bring out humor. Hatzin looks at the devastating reality around him with a gaze that shifts between empathy and utter indifference in various instances. It is through that gaze that we see the devastating conditions factory workers are made to work under, with low pay and long hours. Lorenzo is extremely disciplined about how he lets this information come out and never makes it the central focus, but he still makes sure that it becomes an important aspect of the narrative. This inventiveness in the storytelling feels like just slightly opening the cap of a bottle filled with water so that just a few drops spill and then shutting it tight the next moment. It is sometimes unbelievable to imagine the number of things he manages to say while just appearing to pass them from a tiny corner; what happens off-screen becomes prominently important as that’s where the film enriches its socio-political landscape.
Lorenzo Vigas has a quietly restrained way of saying things, where even the most dramatic instances pass off from his layer of aesthetics and manage to have newer feelings that evoke different thoughts. What is important for visual arts, or any for that matter, is the way chosen to reach a certain point. It is the way that multiple people will think in a certain way about certain points that will make them reflect on completely new ways of thinking. A lot of times in “The Box,” it is difficult to feel anything because of the manner in which the story unfolds, and that in itself becomes a boon when one starts to get the hang of the restrained storytelling. Lorenzo seems to de-poeticize his visuals when the camera blurs out anything that is not absolutely near to it; when it moves with calculated steps and stays long on a certain beautiful landscape shot that it starts to seem to be stretching away. All of this never catches attention, and neither is there any implication where the filmmaking takes center stage; it manages to just bring out the many layers of the story devastatingly well. The striking use of environment sounds complements the dryness that the visuals create and increases longing for a release that should come from music that never comes, even in the end. And so, just like a candle that dozes off after being blown out, the film descends into darkness, leaving us with questions along with the stench of wax that got burnt.