Saturday, March 12, 2011

Undertow ***½

Director: Javier Fuentes-León
Cast: Cristian Mercado, Manolo Cardona, Tatiana Astengo

Recent films that feature homosexual characters usually rely on their sexual orientation to weave tales about morality, "finding yourself" and more often than not, seem determined to impose a set of utopic values appropriate for our liberal era.
The truth however is; that homosexuality isn't as accepted as artists pretend they like to think. Even when they find universality in gay stories, when audiences go home from the theater, they will still think they saw a "gay movie".
This is why Undertow is such a refreshing, if unapologetically heartbreaking, realistic take on the stigma society imposes on people who are different.
Set in a small Peruvian fishing town, the film centers on the life of Miguel (Mercado), a regular fisherman who spends the day out at sea, heads back into town to drink with the guys and has a pregnant wife (Astengo) at home.
The difference is he's also having an affair with Santiago (Cardona), a rich photographer who's ostracized in the village because of his artistic tendencies, his foreignness and his sexual orientation.
The film first seems like it will follow a familiar path: how long can the men keep their secret? Yet there's a twist halfway through the running time that takes this from being a predictably preachy account, into a metaphysical exploration of what constitutes love.
On his screen debut, director Fuentes-León comes up with a sensitive story that richly embeds South America's own magical realism with a larger subject.
Since the film is about two men having a love affair, it's silly to think that the "gay factor" won't come into the equation. So what Fuentes-León does is even more impressive; he delivers their story with such a matter-of-fact-ness, that the audience has no time to ask themselves the typical questions.
When the movie begins they are together; we never know how it came to happen (no ridiculous or awkward "first kiss" scenes) which makes accepting it much less of a struggle and more of a fact.
In this way the film, perhaps out of self convenience, saves itself scenes where we'd seen Santiago become a tempter, or Miguel struggle with his macho feelings before giving in. Their affair, in fact, seems completely natural and even logical.
Miguel gets out of Santiago everything he can't have in the village: smart conversation, artistic flairs and perhaps even a less conservative take on sex.
We learn that Santiago conversely, gets innocent love back from Miguel, the one he seems to have never found in the big city.
This is why, before being anything else, Undertow is a poetic love story, and as the middle act twist takes its toll on the characters, we see it turn into a beautiful exploration of not only love, but gender politics and even the nature of memories.
Mercado gives a tender performance that takes us through the motions of acceptance with a delicate violence. His scenes with Santiago are joyous. Watch how instead of succumbing to clichés about the way gay men act together, the film just lets them be.
Because Miguel is from a small town he isn't aware of the preconceptions that come with being gay, he's not aware of the labels (this is represented beautifully in a further scene where his wife sees him watching a soap opera, takes the remote from him and puts on a soccer match).
Therefore, his idea of fun with Santiago is mostly his idea of fun with his friends: they drink until they pass out, play games, talk about their families but they also have sex.
As Santiago asks of Miguel to commit to him (he's willing to take whatever he offers) we see Mercado infuse his character with sadness and even denial.
How can he leave his wife to have a life with a man?
Cardona equally turns out a beautifully complex performance, more astonishing because in a way he becomes a symbol.
With his character, Fuentes-León goes beyond exploring homosexuality in Latin America, in fact it's as if he didn't even care about this matter.
Instead he focuses on seeing how people who have to live under taboo find ways to grasp onto their love in whatever way possible.
It's terribly heartbreaking, but this allows the movie to remain within a realistic universe which, then paired with the film's magic realistic sensibilities, creates a truly powerful emotional punch.
Undertow sadly can't overcome some of the expected turns one would expect from a film about forbidden love (mainly, when will the people find out?) but when it happens, it uncovers new layers that open up the film's overall impact.
Mainly here, it deals with unique cultural practices and asks itself what can be considered as sin in Catholicism.
Does Santiago stand a chance in, literal, hell, because of his sexual orientation? Is Miguel more of a sinner because of his affair or the person he's having it with?
These questions torment the characters and allow the director to play with the supernatural, in a way that the entire film becomes a melancholic attempt to capture the way in which love keeps on living even when the person you loved isn't there anymore.
The amount of sadness and heartbreak contained in each of the film's scenes might prove stronger than anything that can be made about the nature of the love we're being shown.
Fuentes-León leads, but never manipulates, us towards a catharsis that might as well remind audiences of times when they felt the same.
The film sometimes falls into seemingly facile twists (a candle's story might make some roll their eyes) but overall remains grounded in a reality that hurts and the memories which might become the only salvation.


Amir said...

ahh i've been meaning to watch this film for a while, but its like, once the award season is over, i jump back into all the classics i've miss from decades ago.
it happens every year. the 2010 films that i miss in 2010 seem to have to wait a good ten years until i get to them.

Jose said...

Tisk tisk Amir. Are the Oscars so evil that they make you miss little gems like this one just because they won't win any more awards?
If it makes a difference I seriously think this was robbed of a Foreign Language Film nod.
Give it a try ASAP!

Robert said...

I've been meaning to watch this as well, even after its Oscar snub! I'll take your word for it and give it a go as soon as possible.

Jose said...

I hope you enjoy it Rob! It's a truly great movie.

movie releases said...

Films based on homosexuality rarely describe the importance of finding yourself but this film does it and this is the plus point of the movie thats why I want you to watch this movie.