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By Valentine Rossetti

Woman shrugging
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It is very rare to find a film where the sentiment stays with you for days after, but Undertow, the first feature-length film of Peruvian director Javier Fuentes-León, who also wrote, co-produced, and co-edited it, is such a film.

Its theme is forbidden love, which manifests into sheer desperation, set in the small North Peruvian fishing village of Cabo Blanco, whose inhabitants possess all the usual attributes of a small town mentality, cradled in the arms of Catholic moral teachings. The film’s protagonists, Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and Santiago (Manolo Cardona) embark upon a clandestine affair. Even though Santiago is married and expecting his first child, he falls deeply in love with Miguel, a visiting painter. Their love and affection for each other soon sets tongues wagging in the village and as the walls of suspicion begin steadily closing in, their devotion to one another grows, that is until tragedy strikes, when Miguel drowns at sea.

It is at this point when two things begin to happen, for the viewer, an intense cloud of emotion envelops, and the glorious spectacle of Mauricio Vidal’s (director of photography) experimentation with magical realism begins, when we now see Miguel as a ghost, who entrusts Santiago with the task of finding his body and giving him a proper burial, so his soul can finally be at peace. As artistically dangerous as the entire concept of magical realism is, being such a mammoth task to get right, it plays out well on the big screen, particularly because of the excellent chemistry between the two actors.

Cardona and Mercado must be credited in particular with conveying, with immense believability, the simple joys of lovers, such as the experience of a warm embrace, a stolen kiss or a touch of the hand, which continues on when Miguel’s earthly body is no more. Also, as the film does not rely on long and drawn out sex scenes, the viewer is left to become more involved and entranced with the two men’s developing romance.

It is often the case, particularly within Latin American cinema, that gay characters are portrayed as theatrical caricatures—transparent, vacuous, and highly-strung, possessing little of the qualities of a normal human being. Yet Miguel and Santiago are as far from the stereotype as you could wish for, they have a subtlety and tenderness which is a precious rarity. And so too, the cinematic exploration of love lost, whether homosexual or heterosexual, has on many occasions slipped into the saccharine-drenched realm of sentimentality, but the graceful gentility of Javier Fuentes-León’s writing has done the genre justice.

In Undertow, it is not grief which is the great tormentor, but love and all that it entails. Like most gay-themed films it seeks to reassess the meaning of masculinity, the far-reaching effect religion still has on society and so forth, yet Undertow seems in many ways a world apart from your run of the mill gay film, as if Fuentes-León wished to break free from the tried and tested formulae, and confidently reach out to a much larger, more diverse audience.


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