Thursday, November 25, 2010

Peruvian Contender: Undertow

In Cabo Blanco, the villagers’ lives are intertwined with the ocean. Most definitely Catholic, they have developed their own traditions, including burial at sea. They fear those not properly laid to rest in accordance with their customs will become restless spirits. One sexually confused man has his traditional beliefs simultaneously challenged and confirmed when his furtive lover’s spirit returns to him in Javier Fuentes-León’s Undertow (trailer here), Peru’s official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Miguel Salas is a pillar of his community. He and his buxom pregnant wife Mariela are active in the church and he is popular with his fellow fishermen. He has a secret though. He has been seeing Santiago La Rosa on the down low. A painter from a family of apparent means, La Rosa is more or less open about his sexuality. Largely shunned by the villagers, he retains affectionate feelings for Cabo Blanco rooted in his happy childhood memories. Still, he really stays for Salas.

Not surprisingly, Salas is a bit conflicted about everything, but his insistence on absolute secrecy tries La Rosa’s patience. After another where-is-this-all-going argument, La Rosa dies in a swimming accident, disappearing in a titular undertow. Yet, since his body is not properly disposed of in a proper Cabo Blanco send-off, his spirit begins to haunt Salas. Promising to recover his body, Salas starts to like having La Rosa’s spirit around. Yet, even without La Rosa’s corporeal presence, town busybody start to form suspicions that lead to gossip.

Cabo Blanco looks like a wonderful place to be dirt poor. While the scenery is definitely picturesque, Fuentes-León also sets a pleasantly gentle vibe. Though Salas and La Rosa are certainly portrayed as consenting adults, Undertow is never excessively explicit. Particularly surprising for a gay-themed film, he also resists cheap Catholic bashing. At his most judgmental, Padre Juan only gives Salas a mild scolding for passing out on the beach naked in a drunken stupor (or so he assumes), which seems reasonable enough.

Of course, Undertow’s story arc is about as predictable as its “to thine own self be true” moral, but it executed with grace rather than indignation. As Salas, Bolivian Cristian Mercado combines the right macho façade with effective pathos and insecurity. However, Tatiana Astengo really lowers the emotional boom as his increasingly concerned wife.

Despite the presence of La Rosa’s ghost, Undertow largely downplays the supernatural aspects of the film, focusing more on its tight little village dynamics. Still, the vibrant cinematography of Mauricio Vidal and the appealing Latin pop songs (two of which were penned by Fuentes-León) make a quality package that could lend it an appeal beyond the obvious core audience. An ultimately forgiving film, Undertow opens tomorrow (11/26) in New York at the Cinema Village.