The weight of water: Undertow ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 22, 2011)

Just when you thought you’d had your fill of romantic ghost stories about closeted Peruvian fishermen, along comes writer-director Javier Fuentes-Leon with his debut film Contracorriente (Undertow). And yes, I am being facetious. A cross between Making Love and Truly Madly Deeply, it is a unique, compassionate, beautifully moving tale.

The story is set on the Peruvian coast. We meet an amiable young fisherman named Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and his lovely, very pregnant wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), who live in a sleepy little village-the kind of place where everyone not only knows your name, but nearly everything that you might be up to at any given moment.

So it’s a minor miracle that no one knows about Miguel’s amor secreto-an artist/photographer named Santiago (Manolo Cardona), an urban ex-pat who lives in an isolated beach shack, where he works on his paintings. Although he’s a low-key and gentle man, Santiago lives in literal and figurative isolation ; due to the fact that he is an openly gay agnostic. In a small town heavily imbued with the deeply conservative values of both traditional machismo culture and the Catholic Church, this counts for two  big strikes against him.

Because of his high standing with fellow fishermen and the village priest (and the fact that he is a father-to-be), Miguel is bound and determined to keep his languid, passionate trysts on the beach with Santiago compartmentalized. “I’m not that way,” he insists with a barely convincing air of macho indignation, when Santiago breaches the subject of total and open commitment (denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, as the saying goes). Mercado is a subtle actor; the look on his face as he stalks away from his lover after the spat conveys both the conflict in his heart and the inner turmoil he is suffering from .

As the birth of his child approaches, Miguel  gets jumpy. After Santiago “accidentally” runs into Mariela in the public market and offers to buy her a good luck candle for her baby after striking up a friendly chat, Miguel forbids him from further contact with his family. Santiago acquiesces, and the lovers cool their heels for a while. Imagine Miguel’s surprise when, after the birth of his new son, he is awakened in the middle of the night and discovers a distraught Santiago sitting on his kitchen floor. Miguel frantically attempts to shoo Santiago out without awakening his wife; it doesn’t work.

Miguel then has an even bigger surprise when Mariela asks him who he is talking to, even though Santiago is sitting between them . “Your face is white,” his wife says (as if he has seen a you-know-what). Santiago has a new secret, which drives the remainder of the film.

The director and his cinematographer (Mauricio Vidal) utilize the inherent beauty of the tropical South American coastline to good effect (it’s interesting to note that Cabo Blanco, where the most of the principal photography was done, was also where some location footage for the 1958 version of The Old Man and the Sea was shot).

The three leads are quite engaging. The film won the audience award at the 2010 Sundance Festival-not surprising considering the emotional wallop in the film’s denouement. While it is essentially a tale informed by magical realism, it earns its points delving into one of life’s biggest mysteries-the complexity of the human heart.

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