Undertow (a.k.a. Contracorriente), which won the World Cinema Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival and has recently been selected as Peru's official entry in this year's Academy Awards, opens in limited release this weekend.
Beautifully rendered by writer-director Javier Fuentes-Leon and his excellent cast, Undertow is set in a small, predominantly Catholic fishing village. It is home to Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and his wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), who are expecting their first child. A well-regarded fisherman whose devotion to his marriage is unquestioned, Miguel is described as being "on good terms with God." Mariela and their neighbors consider it a quirk that Miguel is more interested in watching the TV soap opera Right to Love than the national sport of soccer.
The conservative community is also the current home of Santiago (Manolo Cardona), an itinerant, openly gay painter. Unbeknownst to anyone as the film begins, Miguel and Santiago have been having an affair. Miguel doesn't consider himself homosexual and bristles when Santiago brings the term up but he also can't stand the thought of Santiago leaving, which the artist plans to do as the birth of Miguel's son grows near.
Before then, and in the wake of an argument between the two men, Santiago disappears. After missing for several days, Santiago reappears in Miguel's home, much to the latter's shock. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that this is Santiago's spirit and neither Miguel's wife nor anyone else in town can see him. Santiago recalls that his body was pulled to the ocean depths and drowned, and it must be found and laid to rest by Miguel before Santiago's spirit can rest. Until then, they take delight in walking around town and being more openly romantic since Santiago is invisible.
Undertow traffics in traditional conflicts between homosexuality and religious repression, but the film feels fresh thanks to its unique setting and occasional comedic elements. Fuentes-Leon makes a winking reference to the 1978 Brazilian movie Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, in which the ghost of a woman's former husband begins to haunt her once she becomes engaged to a new man.
Once a nude painting of Miguel done by Santiago is discovered as well as Santiago's body, Miguel is challenged to publicly admit his relationship with Santiago. The film's final 30 minutes perfectly encapsulate both the pain and liberation that come with coming out.
UPDATE: Undertow is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.