… against the current …
Undertow, a wonderful simple film, focuses on a modest town where a modern perspective starts to crack open a closed village society. I came across this film, knowing nothing about it, on HBO’s On Demand, and found myself swept up in its direct beauty.
Charmingly photographed in a tiny Northern Peruvian coastal town, Cabo Blanco, Undertow draws one in, as surely as the ocean’s tide. As the movie begins we watch a seaside burial. It’s a fishing village and traditions run deep. According to custom, the spirit of the newly deceased must be buried properly at sea. Miguel (Cristian Mercado) has the magical touch that will allow the deceased’s spirit to be free from the bondage of our world, and thus we follow Miguel out to sea where the body is cast off into the ocean.
Back in town life goes on — simple lives, fishermen, their wives or girl friends, tavern owners, a local market… a close-knit town for sure, obviously there for decades. Yet, oddly the town has been invaded by a photographer, Santiago (Manolo Cardona); he drifts about, always an onlooker, documenting the town with his camera, clearly an outsider and different in his ways. The movie intercuts between the town’s people and Santiago and, as we discover in time, Santiago and Miguel are lovers. The director gives us hints that ghosts may inhabit the town and all may not be as rosy as we think, through the abandoned buildings where the lovers meet.
Miguel’s problem is he’s married and his wife is about 7 months pregnant. Santiago adores Miguel who, to him, is as beautiful and tranquil as the town. Santiago is an artist — a painter as well as photographer — and he’s truly come to town because of Miguel. Ah but Miguel, in spite of his enjoyment of his erotic time with Santiago, believes that he’s truly a man in the conventional sense the village would understand, and he loves his wife too.
Alas after one of their erotic encounters, Santiago has an accident. He slips on his boat and is drowned. Not being buried properly as tradition dictates — his body is at the bottom of the ocean — his spirit is trapped at the seaside town. Magical happening abound between Miguel and Santiago to both men’s delight and fears. Thus, reality and the supernatural intermix in this beguiling story, as the town is dragged into the fray. Miguel is confronted with his true self and must come to terms with it, as difficult as it will be for himself and his family. Will these simple seaside villagers be able to accept gay men in their midst?
I was surprised by the film’s unpretentious charms, yet deep devotion to explore majestic themes. The photography made one long for a mythical seaside existence where life seemed simpler.
As the riveting story takes a number of twists and turns, each complicating matters (I will not reveal its secrets.), we see that the human spirit can soar and adjust to life’s most difficult challenges. The film builds ever more surely to a beautiful, teary-eyed ending. I loved the film.