Undertow

Film, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Undertow
There is an unspoken rule in Hollywood that states that, in order for two men to love one another, at least one must die. We saw it in ‘Philadelphia’. We saw it again in ‘Brokeback Mountain’. A similar rule applies in this debut feature from Peru, only here it’s played out with an unexpected twist.

Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and Santiago (Manolo Cardona) are secret lovers – secret because Miguel has a heavily pregnant wife, and because the fishing village where they live isn’t exactly progressive when it comes to homosexual relationships. We know this because Santiago is open about his sexuality, and as a result has been ostracised by the entire community. Women murmur things under their breath, while the men are overtly hostile. Nobody calls him by his name. He is referred to simply as ‘the artist’.

So when Santiago drowns in a tragic accident and reappears as a spirit only Miguel can see, hear and touch, in many ways it looks like the perfect solution. Miguel can continue his relationship without the fear of being found out. There’s just one problem. Until his body is found and buried in accordance with custom, Santiago’s soul is unable to pass peacefully to the afterlife. What follows is a test of Miguel’s measure of himself as a man and of the love he feels for his family and the man he has so far denied.

The symbolism might sound a little heavy, and there are odd moments when the dialogue threatens to weigh things down. One scene in which Santiago coaxes Miguel to come and join him ‘out in the open’ is mercifully short. But the performances are so convincing and the photography so breathtakingly beautiful, you’re easily swept along.

There’s humour too, much of it at the expense of Latin American stereotypes, machismo and the automatic suspicion of a man who prefers watching Brazilian soap operas to football (Cardona, the Colombian actor who plays Santiago, is well known for his macho roles in television dramas).

But for all its knowing asides and playful twists on the traditional love triangle, this is no romantic comedy. In the end, ‘Undertow’ achieves a kind of lyricism rarely seen in contemporary gay filmmaking. It’s a film about modern sexual identity, but also about traditional values like honour, truth and the need for courage. It’s an impressive debut, and a fine example of Latin American cinema’s use of magical realism to explore difficult themes and deliver deeply affecting messages. Winner of the Audience Award for World Cinema at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this is a true gem.

By: Paul Burston

Posted:

Release details

Rated: 15
Release date: Friday August 6 2010
Duration: 101 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Javier Fuentes-León
Screenwriter: Javier Fuentes-León
Cast: Tatiana Astengo
Manolo Cardona
Cristian Mercado

Average User Rating

4.2 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:11
  • 4 star:2
  • 3 star:3
  • 2 star:1
  • 1 star:0
LiveReviews|30
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any man or woman,it doesnt matter the genre, who see this and doent cry isnt human at all. despite its well-known metaphor of gay invisibility, its cliches or steriotypes--gay is the only artist, women are gossipy and bitchy and mothers--and its oh-so-clear message about truth. the fact that it is set in Peru, doesnt matter much. it could be any small town anywhere for that matter. it is like dona flor with a gay twist when it is funny but it is also cruel when it is sad. love the acting and the music and the cinematography.


any man or woman,it doesnt matter the genre, who see this and doent cry isnt human at all. despite its well-known metaphor of gay invisibility, its cliches or steriotypes--gay is the only artist, women are gossipy and bitchy and mothers--and its oh-so-clear message about truth. the fact that it is set in Peru, doesnt matter much. it could be any small town anywhere for that matter. it is like dona flor with a gay twist when it is funny but it is also cruel when it is sad. love the acting and the music and the cinematography.


Most gay-themed films are just trashy and are based on getting lots of sex and not really having any emotion or community. This film is different. It has much more depth and shows the involvement of community and family.


Most gay-themed films are just trashy and are based on getting lots of sex and not really having any emotion or community. This film is different. It has much more depth and shows the involvement of community and family.


I saw this movie in a small festival in Bologna (Italy) last Saturday, never heard about it before so it happened to be a magnificent surprise. The movie is set in a seafront village in Peru, where a fisherman, Miguel (aka Mico) living with his pregnant wife, but in love with a city born painter-photographer, Santiago (Tiago). Santiago kills himself drowning in the ocean, and returns as a ghost whom only Miguel can see. The film's better invention is the realisation that, for Miguel, having an invisible lover is a comfortable situation. He can finally living his relationship with Tiago without hiding himself, despite living in a small deeply catholic community where homosexuality is condemned as sin. But unfortunately this situation doesn't last very long, and Miguel will face the hostility of his village revealing his relationship with Santiago and giving him a proper funeral ceremony. The lead actors performances are astonishing and the small Peruvian village set is something you wouldn't easily forget. Highly recommended.


I saw this movie in a small festival in Bologna (Italy) last Saturday, never heard about it before so it happened to be a magnificent surprise. The movie is set in a seafront village in Peru, where a fisherman, Miguel (aka Mico) living with his pregnant wife, but in love with a city born painter-photographer, Santiago (Tiago). Santiago kills himself drowning in the ocean, and returns as a ghost whom only Miguel can see. The film's better invention is the realisation that, for Miguel, having an invisible lover is a comfortable situation. He can finally living his relationship with Tiago without hiding himself, despite living in a small deeply catholic community where homosexuality is condemned as sin. But unfortunately this situation doesn't last very long, and Miguel will face the hostility of his village revealing his relationship with Santiago and giving him a proper funeral ceremony. The lead actors performances are astonishing and the small Peruvian village set is something you wouldn't easily forget. Highly recommended.


Phil Ince, as you're clearly articulate and literate, may I ask you to offer your thoughts re: your own comment "it doesn’t seem to advance gay cinema as a whole"? How exactly do you define "gay cinema"? Is this a genre? And what exactly does the verb "to advance" mean in this - in your- context? And if a film fails in this as-yet-undefined enterprise, does that mean it's necessarily a less-than-engaging movie?


Phil Ince, as you're clearly articulate and literate, may I ask you to offer your thoughts re: your own comment "it doesn’t seem to advance gay cinema as a whole"? How exactly do you define "gay cinema"? Is this a genre? And what exactly does the verb "to advance" mean in this - in your- context? And if a film fails in this as-yet-undefined enterprise, does that mean it's necessarily a less-than-engaging movie?


I’m not too concerned about my minority status, cinematador, and I may not be quite the beneficiary of metropolitan privilege you suppose. I’m puzzled that you seem to suggest that the nationality of the film is irrelevant. I think culture is fundamentally geographical in origin and I’d expect Peruvian culture to have distinct qualities and the distinct qualities to be visible in the film. I hadn’t any distinct sense of the place either physically/visually nor culturally and I have the impression because the environment couldn’t be shown that this was because there was no locale. I’m wrong about many things and so I may well be wrong about this. For all the rurality of setting that I infer from watching Undertow, perversely it seems to me very metropolitan. When you say that it asks, “What does it take to be a man?�, I’d be puzzled because I don’t understand the question. The best I could do to try to understand would be to return the answer/question, “Where?� This you seem to say has no meaningful answer because ‘what it takes’ to be a man doesn’t differ from one place to another. If it does differ, place matters and therefore its Peruvian origins matter. Then I come back to your dismissal of the films origins as irrelevant and I don’t know how you can do that. I can see on reflection that a film I went into blind may focus on its characters responses to sexuality but that may mean it is a film about perceptions of gender. Pointed out to me, if I’ve taken the point correctly, I see this to a degree but does it do that in any wider sense than the sexual? I do not pretend to have grasped it but if you can clarify the ways in which you identify Undertow ‘repeatedly’ and ‘superbly’ asked whatever its questions were, I’d be interested to know more exactly what you mean.


Hi Phil, I think you are bogged down in semantics of both a) the privileged metropolitan freedom you emerged from/are surrounded with and b) missing some key texture embedded in the story. This is not a gay or political film, it simply asks the question 'what does it take to be a man?', many times over and answers this superbly. Furthermore, the film doesn't cast any judgement on any 'super' values such as community, christianity, etc and in fact subversively integrates these into the narrative in a way most gay fillms cannot. You are in a minority on this one despite the lead character obviously dealing with his crisis of conscience and in danger of patronising the wife who fails to impale herself on preconceived notions of what women need from men. As regards Peru, what would you have us know, other than this story emerges from there?


Hi Phil, I think you are bogged down in semantics of both a) the privileged metropolitan freedom you emerged from/are surrounded with and b) missing some key texture embedded in the story. This is not a gay or political film, it simply asks the question 'what does it take to be a man?', many times over and answers this superbly. Furthermore, the film doesn't cast any judgement on any 'super' values such as community, christianity, etc and in fact subversively integrates these into the narrative in a way most gay fillms cannot. You are in a minority on this one despite the lead character obviously dealing with his crisis of conscience and in danger of patronising the wife who fails to impale herself on preconceived notions of what women need from men. As regards Peru, what would you have us know, other than this story emerges from there?


Hi David, to me Undertow seemed ordinary. The failing may well have been mine but as an Englishman living in London, I can’t imagine what purpose this film serves here. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem to advance gay cinema as a whole and because neither the community nor the relationship between the 2 men had any real background to it, I didn’t feel that it told me much of interest about Peru either. When I tie that to the depiction of the women which seemed questionable and negative cliches to me, I was left with a film I didn’t ‘get’. But then the conclusion has a queasy ‘stand up and be counted’ feel to it which verges on the didactic. If it’s presuming to pass comment on the community’s stance on homosexuality, it didn’t convince me that it had a moral position on the adultery and, to me, the adultery was the heart of the film, not the vague, gay, summer romance. It has a clear position on denial but not betrayal. I just didn’t know what the film’s intentions were but I felt it was delivering a reproach and in turn to some degree deserves one for what came across to me as a negligent self-righteousness.


I hope we can get the soundtrack, both Selma Mutal''s work and the song "Aunque no sea conmigo". Loved this film the audience was so excited.


Deeply moving film, excellent choice to have Selma Mutal as composer, profound soundtrack as in The Milk of Sorrow. Undertow is one of my favorite films so far this year


I thought this was a bit ordinary. I think I'm intended to admire an adulterer who 'does the right thing' by burying his boyfriend's corpse at sea. Maybe I got that wrong but it all seemed morally muddled to me, muddled and a little self-righteous. Further muddle came from its 'geography'. Where was it meant to be set; a town, a fishing village, a hemlet, where? The sea is sometimes full of boats but we only see a handful of houses. If the place is so well-populated that it supports so many fishermen, where do the people all live? Where is this? I realise this might seem pedantic but there’s no reality to the ‘community’ because it has no definition. Where are the two guys intended to be when they're running around and shagging on the beach? If it’s that small a place that they can nip away and screw, they’d be missed. I found the lack of setting disorienting. The characterisations were a little thin with the women pretty much all either clingy or bitches or both. The reviewer says that the dead guy was open about his sexuality. Did I misunderstand? I thought his sexuality was deduced but don’t remember it being suggested he was open. There’s no background to the principle relationship and to some extent there’s no foreground either. It’s film- making at the ‘Full Monty’ level; not magical, I felt, merely unreal. Ok but no great shakes. Poor Time Out. Thanks for the chance to rephrase my poor free thoughts. Try harder.


This film is currently on at the Cornerhouse in Manchester. A beautifully made and deeply moving tale of true love. This review sums it up perfectly.


This film is currently on at the Cornerhouse in Manchester. A beautifully made and deeply moving tale of true love. This review sums it up perfectly.


This film makes people who thought they were grown ups actually cry. Cry cos deep down we all know we've screwed up love and would love to grab a chance to be courageous. Great film.


This film makes people who thought they were grown ups actually cry. Cry cos deep down we all know we've screwed up love and would love to grab a chance to be courageous. Great film.


This is an extraordinary debut film. It has won almost every audience prize from discerning festivals worldwide. It is a new voice emerging from Latin America.


This is an extraordinary debut film. It has won almost every audience prize from discerning festivals worldwide. It is a new voice emerging from Latin America.


I agree with wat eva his name is. it is terrible. some people jus dont no wat a true film is


I agree with wat eva his name is. it is terrible. u guys dont no wat your talkin about


I saw this last year at it's premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival. A beautiful deeply moving film. The audience reaction at the end was electric as they burst into spontaneous and sustained applause.


I saw this last year at it's premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival. A beautiful deeply moving film. The audience reaction at the end was electric as they burst into spontaneous and sustained applause.