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1 review, 9 user ratings

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Contracorriente (Undertow)
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by Jay Seaver

"A man haunted by his secrets."
5 stars

Not all ghost stories are horror movies; in fact, some of the best ones aren't. Take "Undertow", for instance - it's not the first film to pounce on the idea that literal and figurative haunting can be the same thing, but it does so almost perfectly, using the simple metaphor to add interest and perhaps humor to a story that could be too familiar, even if well-told.

Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is a well-respected man in his Peruvian fishing village. He's a simple fisherman, not wealthy, but he has a lovely wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), who is expecting their first child. They host practically the entire town for dinner after church on Sundays, and when Miguel's cousin dies, the man's brother asks Miguel to speak for him at the ceremony where the body is offered back to God and the sea, as Miguel is "good with God". They may not think so if they knew that, when nobody is looking, Miguel is the lover of photographer and artist Santiago (Manolo Cardona), who is widely shunned even though nobody mentions his sexuality. Then, one day, Santiago disappears - although not to Miguel, who is the only one to see the drowned man's ghost, and knows that Miguel will only find peace if Miguel finds the body and carries out the ritual - but that would mean admitting everything.

Where writer/director Javier Fuentes-León is going with this is clear, but that doesn't hurt it one bit. Santiago's ghostly state is an elegant metaphor for Miguel's closeted existence - by turns, it highlights both Miguel's fear of discovery and the torment Santiago feels at being hidden, but Fuentes-León isn't satisfied with that; he's able to deftly transform it from a metaphor to a fantasy of Miguel being able to merge both his public and secret lives at once, although the film is well aware that this is not a fair deal. Though the exact moment when the change is made is obvious, it does not feel like a filmmaker trying to change the rules to have it both ways, but a natural outgrowth of the story. It's impressive management of tone, although Fuentes-León does falter in that area toward the end, when he opts to examine more permutations of how the situation can play out than is optimal.

On the other hand, points for not going into whether Santiago is a genuine ghost or a hallucination/manifestation of Miguel's guilt, though it might be the first question many would ask in Miguel's situation. A few small bits mark him as probably real, but it's almost subliminal, never the focus of the scene, thus keeping the audience focused on the important elements of their relationship. Other details are handled nicely, too - an amusing bit about watching telenovelas versus football, a last act that quietly examines whether most are homophobic out of true disdain or conformity, and an exchange between Miguel and Santiago that says volumes about life in the closet ("You think everyone's like you." "No, I think everyone's like you; that's the problem.").

Christian Mercado's handling of the closeted character is nicely nuanced, as well. His scenes with Tatiana Astengo are not tense or angry, but the change that comes over him when playing against Cardona is perfect - that this is who he really is. That this euphoria also transfers to the scenes of Mighel's newborn son is no contradiction, either. Astengo and Cardona are excellent as well - Astengo, in particular, does an excellent job of communicating Mariela's shifting emotions toward Miguel, and Cardona finds a good mode for Santiago - victimized, but still carrying a certain level of confidence and dignity when he could be a martyr.

The rest of the cast is very good as well, especially considering that this is apparently a film that cast as many locals as professional actors. That's not all Fuentes-León gets from his coastal locations, either - he does an excellent job of presenting the place as a small, tight-knit community without making it feel isolated or backwards, and the scenery gives cinematographer Mauricio Vidal some very nice raw materials to work with. It's a beautiful area, and Fuentes-León and Vidal do an amazing job of getting just the right quality of light that the same location can be, by turns, idyllic and threatening.

Or, of course, haunting. "Undertow" isn't looking to scare the audience, or even necessarily upset it, but it certainly does a fine job of showing what it's like to be haunted by a secret.

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originally posted: 02/12/11 09:28:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2010 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Provincetown International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Provincetown International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/01/19 Frank M. Deeply touching, marvelous 5 stars
10/21/11 Brenda McCullough achingly touching, in the magic realism tradition; beautiful, purposeful cinematography. 5 stars
6/24/11 Mark F. A real gem. Beautiful, honest and moving. A + 5 stars
2/15/11 Teresa Metz A theme most of us can relate to, a life that is not as we appear to be. 4 stars
2/05/10 Philip Stunningly beautiful, moving and honest. 5 stars
1/31/10 William Great love story, loved the photography and the music 4 stars
1/28/10 Lina De vivero Great story, photography and cast! 4 stars
1/28/10 Jonathan Extremely moving and thoughtful. Wonderfully made! 5 stars
1/27/10 Alexander Gallaguer Great acting, Great Soundtrack 4 stars
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  DVD: 01-Jun-2011



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