Catch the Latin Wave

Undertow pulls in viewers with its gay ghost love story and a twist

Undertow pulls in viewers with its gay ghost love story and a twist

The Peruvian film Contracorriente (Undertow) has been called a ghost story with a twist. It’s also a gay love story with a twist, and a portrait of a small Peruvian fishing village with a twist. Writer/director Javier Fuentes-León has neatly blended these elements in a beautifully shot and acted drama.

It’s not surprising that Undertow took the audience award at Sundance. Or that it's a big part of the Latin Wave film festival, running now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (Caution: This review will reveal some of Undertow's plot twists.)

The story is quite basic. Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is apparently just one of the village guys. He spends his days fishing, drinking, and playing futból with the men he’s known all his life, and his nights with his very pregnant wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo). On Sundays he’s in church. In other words, he’s living the life prescribed for him by his very traditional and religious community.

Except when he isn’t. He’s also the lover of Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter from the city who hangs around the village, ostensibly to paint seascapes.

Miguel tells himself — and Santiago — that he “isn’t ‘like that.’” That he isn’t gay, that he’s still macho, that’s he’s just having a strange episode in his life. This goes on until Santiago drowns while swimming in the surf. In a witty turn, his ghost appears to Miguel.

Only Miguel can see Santiago, so now they can “come out” as a couple — walk openly down the street, that is — without anyone suspecting that Miguel is in love with a man. For a brief period, Miguel is living an idyll.

But when two horny teenagers break into the Santiago’s house so they can use his now-abandoned bed, they discover Miguel’s secret. The walls are covered with nude portraits of the father-to-be. Miguel hadn’t posed for them; Santiago painted them from memory, so Miguel doesn’t know the paintings exist until he finds that he has become the subject of town gossip and his wife has thoroughly freaked out.

At this point, when Miguel has to decide whether he can admit who he really is, the film becomes a pointed study in the demands of manhood. Santiago’s ghost accuses Miguel of not being man enough to come out.

“There are many ways of being a man,” he says. “But you are none of them.”

Director Fuentes-León has chosen his elements wisely. The spare Peruvian coastline has an elemental power that artfully emphasizes Miguel’s fears of his own nature. And because the village is so small and traditional, and all its members have such clearly defined roles, Miguel’s terror at being found out makes powerful sense.

This is not to say that Fuentes-León depicts village life as unduly repressive. The Catholic Church, as represented by a sympathetic priest and by a good deal of religious imagery, is an ultimately positive force. And in general being a Peruvian fisherman looks like a pretty good draw in life.

If Miguel is driven out of his community, it would be something like a loss of paradise.

The leads are very sympathetic. Cardona and Mercado are well-known telenovela stars in Latin America. Mercado has the most challenging role, of course, as he has to walk Miguel into the truth baby-step by baby-step. But he’s quite affecting, and has a moment of quiet ecstasy when his son is finally born.

Contracorriente (Undertow) screens tonight at 5 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Director Javier Fuentes-León will be in attendance.

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A scene from"Contracorriente" (Undertow)