Undertow Review: Pulling Power
I don’t know what the Spanish for “I wish I knew how to quit you” is, but it may as well be Contracorriente (or Undertow in English). The winner of the 2010 Sundance film festival Audience Award for World Cinema Drama is most easily described as a cross between Brokeback Mountain and Ghost, with a distinctly South American flavour.
In a deeply religious fishing village on the Northern coast of Peru, Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) are expecting their firstborn child. But Miguel harbours a secret: he is also having a homosexual affair with Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a visiting painter who is shunned by the community because of his sexuality.
Miguel wants to have his cake and eat it, projecting an image of domestic bliss while also seeking solace in the masculine embrace (and chiselled buttocks) of Santiago. When Santiago drowns, his spirit returns to Miguel in a form that only he can see. Santiago’s spectre status allows Miguel to express his love without fear of scorn. This pocket of the story possesses the film’s most tender moments of intimacy. There is a poignant moment when the pair walk hand-in-hand along the waterfront, and Miguel is greeted by smiles rather than the scowls Santiago usually receives.
With Santiago’s body unable to cross to ‘the other side’ he is trapped as a ghost, which suits Miguel just fine…for a while. Miguel must decide whether to let Santiago endure eternal torment, or give him the ritual burial that will allow him to rest in peace. But in order to do so, Miguel must no longer hide behind dishonesty, but reveal the true nature of his feelings towards Santiago, braving the scorn of the town and overcoming his own prejudices in the process.
Director Javier Fuentes-León’s first feature film is beautifully shot and well acted. Miguel is a largely self-serving character, but Mercado delivers a performance of great warmth that makes him a sympathetic protagonist. The trio of lead performers all give heart-felt and emotional performances. Though the film is a largely sombre affair, there are touches of humour as the ghostly presence of Santiago interacts with Miguel (reminiscent of scenes from Over Her Dead Body).
Fuentes-León is never preachy and has produced a unique and delicate love story that explores the South American perception of masculinity. Powerful performances twinned with a sophisticated script and intelligent direction produce a sombre and melancholy film that is both touching and thought-provoking.