Trying to swim against the tide
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, January 28, 2011
As if love triangles aren’t complicated enough, the bittersweet Peruvian film “Undertow” offers a couple of twists on the archetype. Not only is Miguel, a husband and imminent father, having an affair with a man, but the lover in question also becomes a ghost.
Given how severely Miguel’s neighbors react to homosexuality, it’s hard to imagine how they would feel about a supernatural tryst, to boot.
Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is a fisherman in a tiny seaside village and, despite his affair with Santiago (who is very much alive as the movie begins), takes traditions very seriously. In the opening moments, Miguel finds that his cousin has died, and so a ritual ensues that involves washing and wrapping the body, walking it out to sea, offering it up to God and tossing it into the ocean. According to the town’s customs, this is the only way the soul will rest.
Santiago (Manolo Cardona), meanwhile, accepts the ramifications of going against the flow. He’s an openly gay painter and photographer, who the town gossips label “a bad example for the children.” While Miguel is happy with an arrangement that involves secret meetings and white lies, Santiago clearly wants more.
Considering Miguel’s insistence on keeping the extramarital relationship under wraps, it’s easy to see why he would be confused to come home and find Santiago in his kitchen. But his initial anger washes away; Santiago has drowned and returns as a ghost that only Miguel can see.
What unfolds from here is as beautiful as it is agonizing. The otherworldly element of the story feels mythic, both in its fanciful mood and its sense of gravitas. This is a modern-day fable.
Miguel must free his lover’s soul, and the only way to do that is to find the body and offer it up to God. Yet, Miguel may not be ready to say goodbye. This is the first time he has been (in some sense) openly gay, wandering the streets of his hometown holding his boyfriend’s hand.
Javier Fuentes-Leon’s feature film debut skillfully mimics the feeling of the ocean tide, offering a push for every pull. As open and free as the arresting seaside setting appears, there are constant reminders of the oppressive aspects that suffocate Miguel, from the rosary he wears around his neck to the massive wedding photo hanging on his wall and his wife’s growing belly to the town’s premium on manliness. As much as Miguel wants to spend time with his specter of a boyfriend, he also feels the need to belittle Santiago in public. The difference now is that Santiago can hear it.
Miguel can’t drift like this forever, of course; at some point he has to commit to navigating in the same direction as his community and wife or moving against the current. And, as is the case in all love triangles involving men, women or even ghosts, when it comes to the final decision, there’s no choice but to make waves.
Contains nudity, language and sexual situations.