Every year, the Academy Awards invites all countries on Earth to submit their best movies for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. This year, 65 countries participated. Undertow (Contracorriente) is the official submission from Peru. Written and directed by Javier Fuentes-León, and made in conjunction with the 2003 Outfest Screenwriting Lab, this film is Peru's version of Brokeback Mountain with just a little drop of The Sixth Sense.
Cristian Mercado stars as Miguel Salas whose first image is that of his head being placed on the pregnant belly of his wife, Mariela, played by Tatiana Astengo. Both Miguel and Mariana live in a fishing village by the sea in Northwestern Peru and what becomes evident early is that not only do the people in the village live off the water, it's where they die as well.
Besides being a fisherman, Miguel is apparently the town's de facto undertaker. He arranges and manages the funerals, which often end with Miguel casting dead bodies at sea. The trouble for Miguel arises when he doesn't arrange or manage the funeral for one particular person. That person is a photographer named Santiago, played heartbreakingly by Manolo Cardona. Miguel doesn't give Santiago a proper burial after his death. For the rest of the movie, Miguel is haunted by this.
Even though the people in the town never say it, there is an effervescent homophobia that one can definitely feel and that Santiago definitely experiences while he's alive. His efforts to reach out to the fishermen in the village or even to some of the women are met with quiet resistance, silent treatment, a cold shoulder or disapproving glances. No one bullies him or calls him names or shouts at him, but he is made to feel like an outsider. He's never fully welcomed by the village.
Some could argue that the village is like that towards him for different reasons, but Miguel knows differently. Miguel is well aware that the village is very homophobic and the reason the people dismiss Santiago is because he's gay. Miguel cares for Santiago, but part of Miguel refuses to bury Santiago because of what the village feels or thinks. Yet, here's the twist.
When asked to bury Santiago, Miguel refuses not because Miguel agrees with certain village people that because he's gay, Santiago doesn't deserve a proper burial. No! Miguel refuses to bury Santiago because it will ultimately keep Santiago with Miguel for a little while longer, and not just Santiago's rotting corpse. Miguel isn't into necrophilia. Refusing to bury him will keep Santiago's spirit in that village, and through some inexplicable cause Miguel can communicate with that spirit.
Why would Miguel want to keep Santiago's spirit trapped in a village filled with people that didn't want him there in the first place? Mostly everybody shunned Santiago except for Miguel, and the only time Miguel spent time with Santiago was in secret in a hidden cove on a beach far from the village. The problem was that Miguel had to hide his relationship with Santiago while he was alive, less people discovered that Miguel was gay too. Yet, in death, Miguel doesn't have to shun Santiago. They can be friends. In fact, they can be more than that.
When we think of homophobia, we often think of the hostility and the bigotry exhibited by those who aren't homosexual, but homophobia is also the internal fear and anxiety harbored within the person who's gay. There's a fear and anxiety of being found out and having everyone around hate them. Mercado captures those feelings and that struggle inside of Miguel. Yet, he also conveys the absolute love for Santiago that he has, which does contradict and even intrude upon his relationship with his family.
Like any film that deals with death, at the heart of this one is letting go. Like any coming-out story, as there are enough to form its own genre, those films that center on an individual's realization and expression of his or her homosexuality, also at the heart of Undertow (Contracorriente) is self-acceptance. This film stands also as a Peruvian testament that you don't know what you've got until it's gone, so appreciate and cherish it.
But, besides the emotional weight and inventiveness of this story, Fuentes-León's visuals beautifully frame the seaside land. The art direction, whether it was naturalistic or not, was gorgeous. The film from beginning to end is rapturous and sexy.
Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated But Recommended for Mature Audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 40 mins.
Playing at the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival
Thursday, Nov. 11 at 9:20 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 13 at 12:45 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 14 at 12:40 p.m.