Undertow / Contracorriente Peru/Colombia, 2009, 100 min.
Director: Javier Fuentes-León, Spanish with subtitles
Art can be powerful because it makes out of the ugly, something beautiful, something worthy of rumination, of staring and marinating and, hopefully, illumination. Ang Lee did this for us with Brokeback Mountain, and now we have Javier Fuentes-León’s first feature-length film, Undertow (Contracorriente).
This movie is complicated. A love triangle, a ghost story, a story of forbidden gay love, of infidelity, of religion – depending on how you look at it, Undertow is all this and more. But given the times we now live, it is the relationship between two men that envelopes the finer points and makes of it a title realized. When we are denied love, even to ourselves, we commit to a life lived in the contrary, in the undertow.
Known through much of the movie as simply, “the painter,” Santiago (Manolo Cardona) stays on the periphery in his little fishing village. It makes sense that he recedes from even life, spending most of his time onscreen as a ghost, a literal iteration of what it’s like to live a life in the closet where only your lover enjoys you as a full and complete human. And it is to Miguel (Cristian Mercado) that Santiago is most human, both in life and in death.
In a brilliant move, writer and director Fuentes-León foregoes special effects resulting in something honoring just how powerful haunting can be. From skeletons in our closet to memories, the living are sometimes affected by those who have passed on, as if the dead were still alive. Bram Stoker knew this well when he created vampires. And it’s very much a reality beyond fiction. Murals painted on the sides of buildings all over Northern Ireland remind the living that the dead are still very much present. For Miguel, the ghost of Santiago feels as alive and warm as when he was still alive, with the bonus of invisibility. Save for a couple awkward moments, Miguel is able to keep on with his hidden life just as if nothing had changed.
Getting in the way of this supernatural Eden is Miguel’s expecting wife, Mariela (Tatiana Estengo), as well as the village itself with its social mores condemning not only homosexuality/bisexuality but ideas of masculinity that meander the slightest from macho aesthetic. Fuentes-León risks watering down the movie or distracting the flow of the movie too much as he brushes up against just how perilous it is to be gay/bi-sexual in a hostile land.
There are several scenes when Miguel is literally reading Bible verses aloud. These moments threatened not just the subtlety but complexity forming a realistic and believable narrative. Thankfully, these moments gracefully do the lifting necessary and fade into the capacious dirge of story that is Undertow.
Fuentes-León extols the Peruvian landscape with cutaway scenes of winds blowing against the unforgiving sandy beaches to the inevitable tides and crackling surf. These pockets of respite shimmer in meaning. They give us time to sink into the angst and joy we see before us, just as if we looked away for a moment, only to be met with beauty and the ferocity of the elements. These moments help along the pace of the movie by giving its congregants not only enough time to digest but to take pleasure in such cinescape.
The original score by Selma Mutal with two tracks by Fuentes-León (what doesn’t this guy do!) does well in coaxing out of scenes a contemplative, plodding pulse alloyed with the stagnation of melancholy. There are bursts here and there of levity and celebration, but much of it is thoughtful and delicate, an homage to the sadness inherent in this story and that same sadness that’s apart of even its triumph.
For those of you who are leery of a movie almost guaranteeing easy access to a box of tissues, fear not. Redemption finds its way into all the nooks and crannies of Undertow. It doesn’t hurt that Miguel and Santiago are very easy on the eyes.