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REVIEW | Better Than It Sounds: Javier Fuentes-León's "Undertow"

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 23, 2010 at 4:15AM

The Peruvian drama "Undertow" -- not to be confused with David Gordon Green's 2004 thriller of the same name -- manages to work a whole lot better than it sounds on paper. With unabashed sentimentalism, first-time director Javier Fuentes-León assembles the quaint story of Miguel (Christian Mercado), a fisherman stuck between obligations to his pregnant wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) and his clandestine affair with a male lover, Santiago (Manolo Cardona). At times turning into a glorified Latin American soap opera, the movie nonetheless overcomes the boundaries of its hackneyed scenario with intense, believable performances and mounting circumstances that have an increasingly stirring effect.
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The Peruvian drama "Undertow" -- not to be confused with David Gordon Green's 2004 thriller of the same name -- manages to work a whole lot better than it sounds on paper. With unabashed sentimentalism, first-time director Javier Fuentes-León assembles the quaint story of Miguel (Christian Mercado), a fisherman stuck between obligations to his pregnant wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) and his clandestine affair with a male lover, Santiago (Manolo Cardona). At times turning into a glorified Latin American soap opera, the movie nonetheless overcomes the boundaries of its hackneyed scenario with intense, believable performances and mounting circumstances that have an increasingly stirring effect.

At this point, nearly a year after "Undertow" won the World Cinema Narrative Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and numerous other awards around the globe, it has become a trite selling point to describe the movie as "Brokeback Mountain" with a Latin American twist. It's also somewhat inaccurate: There's no question that "Undertow" works in tremendously derivative ways, but the premise actually plays out more like a queer take on "Ghost" than a Peruvian "Brokeback."

Miguel lives in fear of his traditionalist community discovering his secret encounters with Santiago, which strains his relationship with the secular painter, who lives an ostracized life on the edge of town. That's when things get a little odd. After Santiago dies in a sudden accident at sea, his ghost remains tethered to the coast, and suddenly reliant on the bereaved Miguel to discover the body and set the spirit free. At first, Miguel considers the supernatural set-up in positive terms: Now he can have his domestic family life and spend time with Santiago, without worrying about whether the dual pursuits will have to converge. The specter of Santiago, however, doesn't approve of this odd arrangement. And as the dead man and his former lover engage in spats about their uncertain future, the community grows increasingly suspicious of Miguel's past.

More often than not, Miguel's arguments with his wife and Santiago end in tender reconciliations, streams of tears, and worried glances. Mercado and Cardona manage to sustain enough passion for their characters to imbue the tragedy with the emotional strength it needs to stay on track, even as the script routinely veers into obvious melodrama. "Undertow" only finds a unique angle on the situation in its closing moments, when Miguel finally confronts the inability of his close friends and family to understand his impulses. It turns out that the spiritual dimension of "Undertow" is just a lark, but the conundrum of its lead character retains a profound legitimacy.

criticWIRE grade: B+

This article is related to: In Theaters, Contracorriente