A fisherman tries to have it all - a wife, a baby and male lover - until fate intervenes in Javier Fuentes-León's gorgeous, poignant debut Undertow. Sensual and romantic with a heavy dose of the supernatural and populated by indelible characters, the film has been a favorite on the festival circuit, where it played San Francisco's Frameline and won audience awards at the Sundance, Miami and Provincetown International Film Festivals. If distributor Wolfe Releasing can sustain that buzz into the drama's theatrical release it may emerge as one of the year's sleepers. Without that, returns will be slimmer for a small, subtitled release lacking familiar faces.
Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is over the moon about the impending birth of his first child with wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) and he is deeply involved with both church and community in his small Peruvian village. He loves Mari, but he also loves Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter the rest of the town views with suspicion for his evident lack of faith and open homosexuality. Keeping their relationship on the down low, no one in town suspects that the men are even acquainted until a tragic circumstance threatens to upset the status quo. Miguel is left with a choice: to do right by his lover at the possible cost of his marriage and social position or maintain his customary silence, an ultimate betrayal not just of Santiago but also of himself.
Shot in Cabo Blanco on Peru's northern coast, Undertow is as pretty to look at as any postcard, but that surface beauty is a mask for insularity and prejudice. If he weren't gay, Santiago would still attract gossip and hostility as an artist and an outsider. Even within the tight-knit community, the bonds are more fragile than they first appear. Having grown up in the town, Miguel is well aware of the constricted range of behavior considered acceptable. In a fit of anger, Santiago accuses him of not being much a man, and that gets to the heart of Miguel's dilemma. On the cusp of middle age, he is just beginning to glean what it means to take responsibility for his actions. He has bought into his family and friends' notion of what manhood is, only to discover that narrow definition insufficient. Adding to his identity crisis is that he is attached to both his wife and lover and if he had his way he would never have to choose between them.
There is not one false note in Fuentes-León's erotically charged, ethereal drama. The performances are as complex as the situation and the characters, but while Cardona and Astengo are excellent, it is Mercado's turn as the conflicted Miguel that makes Undertow so resonant. Playing a man navigating an emotional and ethical minefield as he tries to stave off inevitable loss, Mercado's turn captures the full range of Miguel's shifting feelings. So well-written that the film was bound to be a memorable first feature in any case, with Mercado's heart-wrenching performance casting its mesmerizing spell, Undertow achieves greatness.
Distributor: Wolfe Releasing
Cast: Cristian Mercado, Manolo Cardona and Tatiana Astengo
Director/Screenwriter: Javier Fuentes-León
Producer: Javier Fuentes-León and Rodrigo Guerrero
Genre: Drama; Spanish-language, subtitled
Running time: 100 min
Release date: Unset January