Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 17, 2010 7:31 pm 
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Love vs. tradition

Undertow (Contracorriente is the Spanish title) is a first feature by Peruvian Javier Fuentes-León, and it's a little gem, a diamond in the rough with handsome, but not pretty-pretty, images (the print looked slightly fuzzy, but that may have been bad projection.). Its protagonist, Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is a fisherman, whose wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) is about to have their baby. But he's having a secret affair with a young outsider, an artist from a well-off family, Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter who lives in a studio near the beach. Miguel loves his wife and is excited about his coming son (who will be named Miguelito). But he is in love with Santiago. It's a romance, and Santiago likes to give Miguel presents. How can they hide their passion in this tiny community, in whose tradition of ocean burials Miguel is an important participant? They can't, especially not when Santiago drowns. At this point Undertow becomes a ghost story. Santiago keeps appearing to Miguel in full-bodied form (though they no longer make love) but now that he's gone, and nobody else can see him, some young people enter his studio and see nude paintings of Miguel. Word gets around and the macho, if internally homophobic, Miguel is rejected by his buddies at the tavern and eventually by his wife, who by now has had Miguelito.

Undertow is simple, like a poem or a fable; but its overtones and implications may not be so simple. This is a gay film. Its story is one that a gay man who has been very much in love can relate to on many levels, including that of living on the down-low. The role of society and tradition is embodied in the community's special ritual of burial at sea. At first Santiago's body is lost, and since his spirit is not at rest this way, Miguel keeps diving in he local waters to look for it. He and Miguel both know that if the body is found and the ritual is performed, Santiago's spirit will be at rest. But Miguel will never see it again. Hence the conflict: perhaps neither man wants Santiago to be freed from his limbo.

The irony is that the situation is, in a way, perfect, at least for Miguel. He can keep on enjoying visits from his lover, and they can even walk down the street holding hands with people walking by. But it's a deception, a dishonesty. The other irony is that now that Miguel has lost his lover, circumstances force him at last to come to terms with it and confess this secret and forbidden love to his wife. In one way this film follows the unfortunate custom of Hollywood films about homosexuality that imply gay love is only okay if one of the lovers dies. But Fuentes-León and his fine cast provide a lovingly natural and beautiful depiction of all this. The film combines the supernatural and the everyday with a sure touch. At first, Santiago's post-mortem appearances to Miguel may seem almost comical. But the scenes between Mariela and Miguel and between Miguel and Santiago all have the same simple, graceful sensuality. On the outside everything is so right and smooth that reviews have justifiably called Undertow "perfect."

In reality neither Santiago's behavior nor the narrow constraints of the society he lives in is in any way "perfect," and the film's supernatural passages and eventual ritual solutions are satisfying only up to a point. What is clear, though, is that Fuentes-León is a talented young director who has handled his daring material with unusual deftness and good taste. The movie is unusual in its equally empathic depiction of fatherhood, childbirth, and both homosexual and heterosexual love. Down to earth, it yet weaves its own special magic spell. The ordeal and dilemma of Mariela is as sympathetically seen as Miguel's and with Santiago's discomfort with Miguel's secrecy. Somehow the simple, macho sensuality (though Santiago more than once challenges Miguel's machismo) is almost Hemingwayesque, so it's not surprising to learn that the town where this was shot, Cabo Blanco, was also where Papa once landed a 700-pound marlin.

Contracorriente is Peru's entry for the Oscar Best Foreign Film competition. It was shown early in the year at Sundance (where it won the World Cinema Audience Award), and in multiple film festivals, and in limited US release in November and December 2010 (San Francisco, New York, LA), where it has received many raves.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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