Wolfe Video // 2009 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // May 31st, 2011
"You're a coward that thinks being a man is having a wife and kids."
The winner of numerous awards including the World Cinema Audience Award Dramatic at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Undertow, originally titled Contracorriente, was Peru's official submission to the 83rd Academy Awards. What is it about this story of a love triangle in a remote seaside village that captured such acclaim?
Miguel (Cristian Mercado, Che: Part Two) is a fisherman living in a quiet, traditional Peruvian village by the sea. He and his wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo, Seven Minutes) are expecting a baby. The community regards Miguel well enough that he's called on to perform the funereal rites for a relative. The residents here believe one's soul will not be at peace until the body is properly buried at sea. However, Miguel isn't at peace with his own identity and he leads a secret second life with his gay lover. In a community where everyone knows everyone's business, Miguel's seemingly calm family life is about to be hit by a storm.
The dilemma of the closeted homosexual is no longer a novel storytelling conceit. The narrative trajectory of such a story is certainly one of two outcomes. Either the protagonist will embrace his true identity and be happier for it or he will live miserably according to the repressive norms of society. For the coming-out-of-the-closet movie to reach beyond its target audience, it needs to find new storytelling angles. Undertow accomplishes this by setting its story in a community we haven't seen before and by incorporating a little magic realism to its simple, earthy surroundings.
The movie is emotionally anchored by the convincing, empathetic performances of the male leads. Miguel and Santiago (Manolo Cardona, Beverly Hills Chihuahua) communicate in few words but their body language speaks volumes. We get the sense that they have a deep, years-long bond even before we piece together their back-stories. Miguel has lived in the village all his life. Santiago, the son of affluent parents, has been visiting the seaside since childhood. He is now a resident under the pretense of working on his photography and painting. There is tension in their moments together but melodrama is absent. They know what they share must be done in secret and when Miguel protests that he's not like his lover, it feels like a routine that he's argued before. Santiago is unfazed by his ostracism from the community and his calm demeanor makes him appear less like a home wrecker than a victim of Miguel's selfishness.
In this village, what Miguel and Santiago share is definitely the love that dare not speak its name. Rumors swirl about Santiago but the residents generally do not bully or act out against him. They just want nothing to do with him. When similar reports are circulated about Miguel, the community's reaction is to distance itself from him and to protect Mariela from the shame. It is a relief to be spared the ugly spectacle of hateful, macho gangs of idiots. But it is easier for the ignorant and fearful to pretend something doesn't exist than to rally violently against it. In that respect, the movie depicts, perhaps more realistically, the reaction of many more heterosexual viewers.
There is an element of the fantastic that is used to great effect in the movie and I want to be careful not to spoil it for viewers that are coming to the movie without advance knowledge of it. It occurs about one-third of the way into the movie and I was surprised by the development. I hadn't read up on the movie beforehand so I was confused for a moment but I think the director intended to illicit that reaction. It also makes sense because the characters are caught off guard by what happens too. The film's trailer and the plot summary on the disc's packaging do not give away this development either. Yet, looking at IMDb and any number of online reviews, this aspect of the movie is revealed almost as the first thing to say about the movie.
No, I won't spoil the story development that dares not speak its name. If you really want to know before seeing the movie, it's easy enough to find out. This element of the story really makes it unique but it's more than a mere gimmick. It creates a dilemma for the protagonist that I had not seen depicted before. What if Miguel could live his double life without being found out? He could possibly eat his cake and still have it too but would he be any happier? Would that be any kinder to Santiago and Mariela? When Miguel tries to have it both ways, the scenes between the two men take on another dimension of bittersweet heartache.
The technical presentation of this Blu-ray release is decent but the advantages in picture and sound might not be reason enough to opt for an upgrade over the DVD. The movie was shot on Super 16mm and the transfer to 1080p/AVC video is heavily laden with film grain. It is noticeable but not entirely distracting since it is a characteristic of the source and the image retains the richness of film photography. Some darker scenes exhibit low contrast, which may be the result of a post-production process to recover detail in the shadows. The colors are fine but maybe just slightly dull considering the potential for sun-drenched shoreline photography. The non-optional English subtitles are fixed.
The 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix is good but doesn't do anything to distinguish itself. Dialogue is clear and subtle environmental sound effects are heard in the surround speakers. There is also a stereo audio mix included on the disc but unfortunately it is marred by a technical glitch. Rather than silencing the extraneous channels when the two-channel presentation is selected, there is a constant buzzing heard from the surrounds that effectively eliminates this audio choice.
The Blu-ray has a nice selection of supplemental materials. "A Look Inside" is the only high-definition featurette, running 18 minutes, with writer-director Javier Fuentes-León speaking at length about the inspiration for and making of the movie. He speaks in English so this was likely a promotional piece made specifically for the movie's North American release. The other bonus features are presented in standard definition. "Undertow: Behind the Scenes" (11 minutes) is a Spanish-language featurette with the director giving a similar introduction to the movie as in the previous segment. It also shows some footage of the production on location. Actors Cristian Mercado and Tatiana Astengo talk about their characters in separate five-minute interviews. There are 23 minutes of deleted scenes and a trailer for the movie too. The extras are rounded out by a PSA (in Spanish and without subtitles) and other Wolfe Video promos.
The movie isn't big on expositional dialogue so it deserves credit for how well the characters are fleshed out. However, the relationship between Miguel and Mariela could have received more attention. It isn't crystal clear how Miguel feels about his wife. Is he strictly a homosexual or is he bisexual? Has he been cruelly lying to Mariela or does he feel a different sort of love for her? Within the scope of this story, the answers to those questions might elude Miguel too. Maybe it's just unavoidable that everyone will be hurt by Miguel's secret.
Undertow is an original and a moving love story with no easy resolution. Its depiction of a small, traditional village feels just right as their prejudices are clearly seen without making them hateful stereotypes. The blending of the fantastic in this realistic setting works exceedingly well.
Not guilty of being just another gay movie.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wolfe Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Spanish)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Spanish)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site