by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday July 10, 2010

This life and the next: Manolo Cardona and Cristian Mercado star in Javier Fuentes-León’s Undertow
This life and the next: Manolo Cardona and Cristian Mercado star in Javier Fuentes-León’s Undertow  (Source:Elcalvo Films )

Writer-director Javier Fuentes-León presents a magical and mysterious love story in Undertow. Miguel (Cristian Mercado), fisherman in a small village in Peru, is having a secret relationship with Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter from the city who is viewed with suspicion and hostility by many of the villagers. Because Santiago already has a reputation as a "maricón" (faggot), and because Miguel does not regard himself as gay--despite his passionate sessions with his male lover, which he keeps compartmentalized from his life with his pregnant wife, Mari (Tatiana Astengo)--Miguel refuses to associate publicly with Santiago.

But then Santiago drowns, and his spirit--unable to move on before the proper funerary ceremony is conducted--appears to Miguel, seeking help. But Miguel soon realizes that keeping Santiago's spirit earthbound is the solution to his dilemma: since no one else can see Santiago, Miguel can walk down the street with him as boldly as he pleases, and not have to face the disapproval of friends or family.

A better translation for the title in original Peruvian Spanish, Contracorriente, might be the more literal "Crosscurrents," given that two distinct motivations are at work on Miguel. He wants to possess Santiago without giving up his wife and infant son; but he also comes to realize that he's only tormenting himself, and Santiago, by refusing to let go. His dilemma is complicated when the villagers discover dozens of nude sketches and paintings of Miguel in Santiago's bedroom; as rumors swirl, the village becomes divided, with some shunning Miguel and others lending their tacit support.

The character of Mari is least served by a script that is otherwise filled with emotional truths and insightful surprises; she's a weepy, accusing wife who cannot bear her husband's devotion to another--much less a man, even though he's dead. (In a way, she has a point: Miguel can not only see and head Santiago, but touch him as well.)

By and large, however, Undertow succeeds as a film, embracing its supernatural material and playing it straight: no "is he haunted or is he just crazy?" insinuations. León refuses to allow his film to become bright and precious by taking the "magical realism" route; Undertow is defined not by the whimsical, but by the specific. The film's message is clear: a "maricón" may be derided, but he's got balls; a man cowed into silence and furtive love he denies in public, however, hasn't even got that much. Whatever one's views on the afterlife, the life at hand requires that one stand up and stand tall in order to claim respect.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.