Undertow (2009)

In the Peruvian Undertow (Contracorriente), it takes a tragic loss of life – and the appearance of a ghost – to make a family man comfortable with his own sexuality, which, the film suggests, also makes him more of a man.

Cotracorriente / Undertow (2009)Peru
4*

Director:
Javier Fuentes-León

Screenwriters:
Javier Fuentes-León
Julio Rojas
Director of Photography:
Mauricio Vidal

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Contracorriente

“There are a thousand ways to be a man”, says the boyfriend of Undertow‘s main character, the handsome curly-haired Miguel (Cristian Mercado), whose wife, Mariela, is close to giving birth to their first child. In his tiny fishing village on the Peruvian coast, being a man necessarily involves having a family (unless you’re the priest), and having friends depends on acting like a man.

In the film’s stunning opening close-up, Miguel turns his head and gently places it on Mariela’s bare belly to feel the baby kicking. He suggests it will be a boy and playfully calls the baby “Miguelito”. Mariela scolds him, concerned it might be a girl and that she might be confused if she heard her father calling her “Miguelito” through the womb. Babies can hear everything, she says. So can we, just a few minutes in, as it is made clear that in this town a man is a man and a woman a woman.

This makes Miguel’s extra-conjugal relationship with Santiago (Manolo Cardona) something of an existential problem, and despite being in a relationship that has clearly matured over time, Miguel is still far from comfortable viewing their bond as something entirely “manly”.

And yet, it is clear the relationship is not some infatuation. Eschewing the uncertainty that so often accompanies the start of a same-sex liaison, especially in a conservative society like this one in rural Peru with its (religious and non-religious) traditions, director Javier Fuentes-León starts his début feature in medias res, after the two have already known each other for a period of time.

Santiago, an artist who mostly keeps to himself, is an outsider in town and gets on some people’s nerves as he goes around taking photos of people and events to paint at home. His house even gets egged on a regular basis by children whose parents no doubt sanction their actions.

The first time we see Santiago and Miguel together, their interaction is intimate and informal. Clearly, this is not some fugacious fling. But Miguel has compartmentalised it as something that only takes place far from home, and he takes care never to meet or speak to Santiago in public. Understandably, Santiago’s frustration eventually reaches boiling point, particularly as Miguel is settling further into his role as a traditional family man. “I’m sick of playing dumb. You can; I can’t”, he admonishes him.

And then, out of the blue, a mere 30 minutes into the film, Santiago drowns. But there is no time to grieve as he announces his own death to Miguel, by showing up in the form of a (very lifelike) phantom in Miguel’s own home. And he keeps showing up, everywhere, the physical manifestation of Miguel’s memory of him, or of his guilt. Santiago is bound to wander aimlessly until his spirit finds peace. 

Thus begins one of the most thrilling, emotionally gripping sequence of scenes imaginable, as Miguel grows used to being out and about in public with his (albeit late and invisible) boyfriend, because no one can see them. It goes without saying that this is the perfect way for Miguel to grow in confidence, at least until the inevitable ceiling hits him on the head: The moment the town finds out about Miguel’s recent dalliances with the man they all simply refer to as “the artist”.

Along the way, former obstacles fall the one after the other, and halfway through the film, when the couple even recreates the most famous shot from Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, there can no longer be any question in even the most conservative viewer’s mind that Miguel and Santiago should be afforded the same empathy we have always granted their equally fictional mixed-sex counterparts.

Santiago’s persistent presence in the film is as comical as it is beautiful. There are no scenes of anguish over him being dead – after all, to Miguel he looks and feels just as real as before – and even in death he has remained as understanding of Miguel’s fragile domestic situation as before: When he turns up next to the bed while Miguel is having sex with his wife (but thinking of Santiago), he covers his eyes but encourages Miguel to continue as if he weren’t there.

Undertow‘s final moments are deeply moving and tie a neat bow on Miguel’s blossoming into manhood, adding colour and closure by way of an honest conversation whose absence made the final moments of Brokeback Mountain feel like an open wound that would never heal. 

Yes, love is selfish. Miguel doesn’t play right by Santiago while he is alive, and even after his death he refuses to acknowledge their relationship. He wants to maintain his reputation in the eyes of the community by having a wife and a son. He wants to have his cake but eat his banana, too.

But by the time we reach the ending, an allegorical connection with Jesus Christ, who carried his cross along the Via Dolorosa in full view of a crowd of people after fighting long and hard with his inner demons, becomes clear. This is a man. This is what a man does when he is honest about who he is. He keeps his promise. And he ensures the one he loves finds peace, even if that means he has to sacrifice his companionship forever.

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