Wolfe Video // 2009 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jake Ware (Retired) // June 23rd, 2011
"Our worst enemy is not necessarily the intolerance of others, but our own internal prejudices." -Writer/director Javier Fuentes-Leon
Like most DVD Verdict readers, I watch a lot of films. They come and they go, and most of them I cannot recall even a few weeks after seeing them. But, every once in a while, a film comes along that is stunning, unique and leaves a deep impression. Undertow, titled Contracorriente in its native Spanish, is one such film.
Set in a small fishing village in Peru, Undertow introduces us to fisherman Miguel who is expecting his first child with his wife, Mariela. They live in the kind of small community where everyone's lives are somehow intertwined. Everyone knows everyone else's business and the community grows, makes mistakes and self corrects as a single unit. Religion plays an important part, as do rituals. Miguel loves his wife dearly and it looks like he will make a wonderful father. He is a sensitive man and a pillar in his small community. But Miguel is also involved in a gay extra-marital affair with the local painter, Santiago. Miguel's identity is intricately tied to the small community he lives with, and he has to toe a fine line to keep his affair a secret. Of course, events out of his control disrupt the fine balance he has created in his life, and throw him into chaos.
If the brief plot summary sounds a little like a soap opera, don't be put off. Undertow presents a simple story and tells it in a simple style, but the themes and ideas are as deep as the ocean on which the film is set. Undertow is a love story, a story about infidelity, but it is first and foremost a story about a man coming to terms with who he is. It is the story of a man learning to accept himself, and then making himself known to his community for what he is and not for what they would like him to be. He has to make many sacrifices, and there is no resolution for him until he can make peace with himself and live his life honestly and openly. These kinds of choices, between honesty with oneself and the acceptance of one's community, are hurdles that many people have to overcome. They must be incredibly tough obstacles to deal with and their unfairness must breed a great deal heartache and resentment. Undertow manages to articulate this dilemma with clarity and elegance.
Undertow is superbly acted. Not a single bad note is hit by any of the cast throughout the film's running time, and it's hard to think of the characters as actors putting on performances. Cristian Mercado, recently seen in Che: Part Two, Tatiana Astengo, and Manolo Cardona deliver stunning performances as the three leads. Miguel in particular is a difficult character to play, as he is a simple fisherman with very little worldly knowledge, but someone who is open to broadening his horizons and yet restricted by the very community that he depends so much on. And regardless of his love for Santiago, he is still very much in love with his wife and newborn child. He is not a bad man by any means; he's just a man struggling with himself.
Undertow is a wonderfully constructed and realized film. Scenes flow organically from one to the next, never feeling like they are a construct of someone's imagination. And yet, the film is extremely tight and lean. Every scene has a purpose; it is either a set-up, a pay-off, or somewhere in between.
Javier Fuentes-Leon directs with finesse and elegance, managing to show us deep character traits without dialogue and through only a quick combination of shots. For instance, there is a scene between Miguel and his lover, Santiago, as they steal a moment of peace and quiet together on a beach under a cliff. The scene begins with a simple shot of a beautiful mountain rockface which is followed by a close up shot of Santiago's face with a look of deeply satisfied wonder on it. We realize instantly that he is awed by the beauty of the natural world around him and is compelled to try to recreate it in his art. The moment is brief and almost unnecessary as it has already been established that Santiago is a visual artist. But, by inserting this little character moment in the film, Javier Fuentes-Leon brings us one step closer to Santiago as we see the beauty of the world through his eyes and understand his passion for it. There are many such small moments in Undertow during which Fuentes-Leon adds many fine layers to the film through very economic film making.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer on this DVD is unfortunately not the best I have seen. The picture quality is fairly soft and flat, and occasionally loses focus. This is a shame as the film is set in a beautiful costal location with some stunning vistas on display; I would have loved to have seen these images rendered in sharper detail. Still, this is not a horrible transfer and is perfectly serviceable. The film comes with a choice of either 5.1 or 2.0 audio tracks. Both are good throughout and the mix of dialogue and the quiet and moody soundtrack by Selma Mutal worked well to bring the story to life.
Wolfe Video does an excellent job of delivering a substantial amount of extra features to this DVD package. First up we have nearly 25 minutes of deleted scenes. They consist of mostly extended versions of scenes already in the film, offer extra character development, and drill home some of the film's themes. While they are nice to have, it's clear why they were left out of the final cut. "Undertow: A Look Inside" is a 20 minute long interview with writer and director Javier Fuentes-Leon during which he discusses the main themes in Undertow, the film making process, his casting decisions, as well as character backstories which he developed with his actors but which are not featured in the film. I was very impressed with this interview as it summarized eloquently and succinctly what many feature length commentaries fail to do during the entire running time of the film. It's an excellent example of an artist articulating his work and is well worth seeing just to study the structure of a great 'making of' documentary. Next up is an 11 minute Behind The Scenes featurette which has poor image quality and is a bit light on content. There are also two short, 5 minute interviews with Cristian Mercado and Tatiana Astengo, and a trailer.
Undertow has garnered a great deal of critical praise in the 2 years since it was made and it's easy to see why. It's an intelligent and moving depiction of a personal crisis that is played neither for its melodramatic nor tragic potential. Instead, Undertow manages to mix comedy and pathos seamlessly. Even though the film could have been a downer, Undertow manages to glean plenty of optimism from the tragic circumstances that set it in motion. It elicits a powerful emotional response from the viewer and it does so honestly and without manipulation. Take my word for it, you want to see this film.
Review content copyright © 2011 Jake Ware; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Wolfe Video
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site