Undertow

Movies, Drama
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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

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Release details

Cast and crew

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