Now and then a small quiet film surfaces without ballyhoo or even much press and finds its way before audiences who are deeply moved by a film about which few have even heard. Such is the case for UNDERTOW (CONTRACORRIENTE), a little film from Peru that is not only well written and directed (Javier Fuentes-León) and well acted by a fine and credible group of actors, but one that also deals with story and information that few film dare to touch. The film has won many awards at film festivals on the order of Sundance and GLAAD, but it has failed to make the public take notice in the theaters - probably because it is a Latin American male love story.
According to the writer/director, the story 'takes place in a small conservative seaside village in Peru. On the surface, all appears well for a fisherman and his devoted wife who are expecting their first baby. The hero is a hardworking and respected member of his community, which holds fast to rigid traditions. There is one wrinkle - he is also devoted to his male lover. A catastrophic accident does not erase the presence of his lover, as the fisherman must now contend with the apparitions of his forbidden love and the gossip and disapproving stares of his neighbors. And it may go without saying - his wife isn't too pleased either.'
Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is the little fisherman who seems to have it all - a loving wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), a solid group of friends and family, and the incipient birth of his first child. But Miguel is a closeted gay man/bisexual who is in love with a painter/photographer, the handsome Santiago (Manolo Cardona) who seems content to maintain a relationship with Miguel in secret. But there is an accident in which one of Miguel's young friends dies and Miguel is asked by the family to prepare the body for burial, carry the boy on a bamboo stretcher, offer a eulogy and then take the body out to sea to bury it in the water - an old tradition in this small Peruvian fishing village that assures that the dead person's soul will find rest. Santiago takes photos of the funeral procession and it is obvious that the townspeople gossip about the painter - a man who paints pictures and is not married is suspect and homophobia rages. As Mariela gives birth to their son Miguelito, Miguel is torn between his devotion to his wife and son and his desire for Santiago's physical presence. In a series of beautifully realized love scenes between the two men it is obvious that there is a struggle on the part of both Miguel and Santiago: they love each other but that love is forbidden. Santiago appears to Miguel one night and says that he is dead, that Miguel is the sole person able to see Santiago's ghost. This allows Miguel and Santiago to be together in the village, as Santiago cannot be seen: they are able at last to love each other in the open. But the village discovers that the missing Santiago's home contained nude paintings of men - men who appear to be images of Miguel. The village treats Miguel as an outcast, his wife is outraged and leaves, and Miguel feels he has lost everything. Santiago's family come to claim the body and Miguel finally has the courage to be the man he really is. The film ends with a deeply moving tradition upheld.
Both Cristian Mercado and Manolo Cardona handle their difficult roles brilliantly: their physical chemistry is visceral and their dealing with the Peruvian prejudice is poignant. But each of the actors is excellent. The cinematography by Mauricio Vidal captures the flavor of the Peruvian seaside and the many underwater scenes are breathtaking. Selma Mutal Vermeulen provides the musical score that is the perfect balance of folksongs and background music. But in the end it is writer/director Javier Fuentes-León who deserves the kudos for a brilliant film that took considerable courage to make. Hopefully we will be seeing more of his work in the near future. Highly recommended.