Posted by: chance47 | 08/07/2012

Home Viewing: “Undertow” or a good version of “Ghost”

Anyone who has talked to me about film for even five minutes, knows how I feel about the majority of “gay” cinema out there.   It’s either hastily made on a zero budget with a half-formed script and amateur acting or it’s a huge hollywood production that doesn’t quite get it (“In & Out” I’m looking at you).  There are exceptions to this rule.  For every “The Birdcage” there is “Brokeback Mountain”.   For every one of the bajillion “Eating Out” movies there is a “Shelter” or a “Weekend”.  At this point in the queer cinema movement, though, I feel there is room for all of these movies.  We need more queer cinema, good and bad.

Thankfully,  “Undertow” is more like a “Shelter” an “Eating Out”.  “Undertow” is a moving and amazingly beautiful and touching movie that came from Peru in 2009.   Just last year, 2011, it received its widest distribution and it is not available to stream instantly on Netflix.

Before any of my readers (all two of you) navigate away because this is “gay” movie, please read me out.  The greatest queer movies are the ones that speak to everyone.   Something that really touches and portrays the LGBT community correctly but also extends its themes to the public everywhere.   “Longtime Companion” may be about the onset of HIV and AIDS in the gay community in the 80’s, but who can watch the scene where Bruce Davison tells his lover goodbye and not immediately think of what they would do in that situation.  They’re all the more moving because they’re universal.

“Undertow” has this universality in spades. Writer, director and editor Javier Fuentes-León has crafted a genuinely

Miguel and Mariela

intriguing and complicated love story set in a small fishing community in Peru.  Miguel, Cristian Mercado in a performance of quiet intensity, is a village local who has taken up the family fishing trade and holds all of his village’s customs in high regard.  The movie opens with the funeral and subsequent burial at sea of Miquel’s cousin.  The entire village partakes in this ceremony, following Miguel to the beach to watch him send his cousin out to rest.  He has a loving wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo, who gives an equally intense and believable, heart-breaking performance) with a baby boy on the way.  To the rest of the village, they have the idyllic life.  Miguel however has frequent trysts with the frequent traveling photographer and painter Santiago (Manolo Cardona).  Manolo Cardona gives a beautiful and haunting performance of a man who longs for what he shouldn’t but can’t help it as he is guided by his heart and not logic (Manolo also has stunningly gorgeous eyes that tend to pull you in throughout that movie and make you think dear god I wish…ahem…digression…nevermind).  The whole town knows that Santiago is gay.  They call him “that painter”.  They call him “maricon” (fag).  They whisper behind his back but he strolls proudly

Miguel and Santiago

through the town not letting the knowing looks affect and forges friendships and acquaintances with whoever will talk with him.   He is a gentle soul who takes photographs of the community to inspire his paintings.  He calls a sister on his cellphone who never picks up, but you know their relationship is strong based on the messages he leaves.  Miguel, afraid of his community’s reaction and his wife’s heartbreak, cannot face the reality of his love for Santiago.  After several clandestine dates Santiago reveals that if Miguel will not be a man and love him openly then he has no choice but to leave this town of inspiration to save his heart from hurt.  Miguel and Santiago separate and say goodbye after a very tough argument about what makes a man and what responsibilities does a man hold.

Mild spoilers after the jump.

Right before Santiago is to leave town, he goes for a swim in the ocean and the undertow sweeps him away causing his untimely death.  Miguel has no clue of this until one night when upon entering his kitchen Santiago is standing there in shock that Miguel can see him.  Yes, Santiago’s ghost is now haunting Miguel’s daily life and only Miguel can see him.  This moment is played so straightforward and honestly by the two male leads that you have no choice but to go with the conceit.   No magic “Ghost” lighting is needed, no special medium (though I love you Whoopi…Sister Act forever!!!!).  Santiago is simply there and Miguel is horribly confused.

Miguel assumes that Santiago’s body must be found and laid to rest as Santiago had already expressed desire of being buried in the ocean coast of this village in the tradition shown at the beginning of the movie.  This is problematic as the majority of the town would not allow this.  But Miguel vows to make it happen.  Upon finding Santiago’s body, he has a change of heart.  He chooses to mark the body, return to shore and have the double life he selfishly tried to have before.

At home he has his adoring and expectant wife.  On the shore he has Santiago, who only Miguel can see, touch and hear.  After the birth of the baby however, connections begin to be made and secrets begin to spill and Miguel finds himself left with a choice.  Lose Santiago forever or be ostracized by his town and fail as a husband and father.

What I love about foreign queer cinema, or foreign films in general, is they are not afraid to be complicated.  They trust their audience will go with them.  Will wade through the mire, the shit, the pain and the pathos to reach the end.  Can Miguel have everything?  Can he be gay and still be a man?  A loving father?  Can he be who he truly is and still a part of this village he so clearly loves?  Can this movie have a happy ending?

I refuse to give anymore details of the movie as I truly believe it needs to be viewed by everyone.  It isn’t a movie for gay people.  Or a movie for foreign cinema lovers.   It’s a movie that asks simple and powerful questions.  What is your best self?  What does it mean to be a man? What does it matter who or how you love?  If those aren’t questions for everyone then I don’t know what is.


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