Undertow (Contracorriente)

Undertow

Directed by Javier Fuentes-León
Starring Cristian Mercado, Tatiana Astengo, and Manolo Cardona
100 minutes, color
2009 (Colombia)
In Spanish
(screened June 2010 in the 34th annual SF International LGBT Film Festival)
www.contracorrientelapelicula.com

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Manolo Cardona (left) and Cristian Mercado in “Undertow”

Who hasn’t been between a rock and a hard place? The characters in just-turned-42 director Javier Fuentes-León’s provocative first feature certainly are. A drop-dead gorgeous painter from the city, Santiago, walks into a tiny Peruvian fishing village where he has a passionate affair with Miguel, who’s married to Mariela, whose son is due any minute. This, of course, turns the whole place upside down. Desire is always a bomb dropped in our laps, but here it’s yoked to fear, and its see-sawing back and forth is the motor that drives the picture.

“Undertow” doesn’t come anywhere close to describing the shifting emotional states the film’s characters go through, though its Spanish equivalent “Contracorriente,” which means against the current, suggests the unconscious forces pulling its three central characters in different directions. It also foregrounds the fact that homosexuality is against or contrary to the heterosexual norm. This, of course, is the driving force of many gay dramas where visibility–do they know?–is always the issue. It isn’t one for Santiago, who’s comfortable in his own skin, but it’s a big deal for Miguel, and his wife, Mariela, whose itijihad, or inner struggle–the greater jihad in Islam–to accept what they don’t want to, anchors the picture. The irony, of course, is that the bulk of Miguel’s work happens after Santiago’s drowning at sea–he’s voiced his desire to have a commitment–when he returns as a ghost that only Miguel can see. And his invisibility ironically begins to make his love for Miguel, as well as Miguel’s slow acceptance of it, finally visible and even more corporeal to him, after the affair, or sex part, has ended.

Miguel’s pulled even further in when Santiago’s body is netted and brought home. A material discovery thus becomes one in which Miguel’s forced to confront his shadow self. But he’s cornered on all sides. By the expectations of his enclosed village, whose inhabitants don’t know a thing about gays, and don’t want to. By his church, with its very Catholic concept of self-sacrifice. And by his wife, who expects him to devote himself to her, their son, and their village values, which are worlds away from Santiago’s.

All these threads combine when Santiago’s body, borne on a bier carried by Miguel and the men from the village, is buried at sea so his ghost doesn’t haunt the living, though he’s been haunting Miguel ever since he died. Fuentes-León stages this sequence like the religious procession it is–the souls of the living asking deliverance from the dead. Santiago’s mother Señora Rosa (Attilia Boschetti), and her daughter Ana (Monica Rossi), and Miguel, shot from above, facing the camera, resolute, grave, confronting death, and thereby life.

1 John 2: 9-11, which is read by the priest, Padre Juan (Julio Humberto Cavero), at the village church, could serve as the epigraph for the whole picture. “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and for him there is no stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness, and he does not go whither he goes because the darkness has blinded him.” And so by shouldering darkness, Miguel comes out into the clean clear light of day. Abiding in love, where fear once was.

Mercado, who had a small role in Soderbergh’s “Che,” negotiates the complex part of Miguel with gravity, grace, and humor. And his look–short, dark, bearded, muscular–transfers to an equally sexy screen presence that provides a counterweight to Cardona’s tall, lean, fair, almost too-pretty-to-be-true city sophisticate looks. Cardona, who’s been doing superlative work for years in telenovelas like “Gitanas” (2004-2005 ) and “El Cartel” (2008), where he was expected to deliver a huge range of emotions at the drop of a hat, is entirely focused, and loving/tender here. And his understated but very accomplished performance seems to bear out the great American director George Stevens’ belief that “movie acting is talking soft, but thinking loud.” Astengo’s role doesn’t, on the face of it, seem that demanding. But Fuentes-León’s script requires her to be the perfect wife–providing, adoring, comforting–and when the chips are down, let nothing stand in her way. Astengo delivers a very real and touching portrait of a woman caught between duty and love, in a town that gives her no wiggle room.

Fuentes-León’s lucky to have the composer Selma Mutal, whom he told me via email, was recommended by his Peruvian director friend Claudia Llosa, whose feature “The Milk of Sorrow” (“La Teta Asustada”) was up for the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year. And Mutal provides a Satie-like mode-inflected score for piano solo and chamber ensemble, which like all good music, says what can’t be said.

Fuentes-León stages two moments–one in the first frame, and one near the end. Miguel, screen left, Mariela’s belly center, her face, right, in full widescreen letterbox format, as he listens to his incipient son’s heartbeat. And Miguel–his handsome sorrowing face dead center, his lover Santiago’s covered in newspaper corpse below–his head’s been eaten away–bereft of him, alone. American films like Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) and Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” (2009) are so busy trying to be “art ” that they indulge in look-oh-isn’t-it-tragic handwringing. Of course they’re effortful–isn’t everything? But Fuentes-León’s film is the real thing. And a very moving one, at that. When was the last time you saw two male actors cry, and mean it? I rest my case.

Michael McDonagh