Undertow is more than just a coming-out tale
Writer-director Javier Fuentes-León's directorial debut, Undertow, is sublime. Set in a small, picturesque Peruvian fishing village, it's less a coming-out tale than a magic realism-infused coming-of-consciousness love story. Miguel (Cristian Mercado), a happily married fisherman and soon-to-be father, insists he's not "that way," despite being head over heels in love with Santiago (Manolo Cardona), the wealthy painter with whom he's having a clandestine affair. When Santiago drowns, Miguel is forced to own up to his love in a gesture that might well mark him as an outsider in his close-knit community forever. Fuentes-León's visuals are sensual and poetic, from long-shot nude romps on the beach to artful close-ups in cramped houses, but it's his nuanced handling of the affair — respecting the p.o.v. of Miguel, Santiago and Miguel's heartbroken wife — that impresses most. That nuance appears everywhere, from the powerful commentary on what it finally takes for Miguel and Santiago to be free as a couple (Santiago's death and return as a ghost) to a compassionate look not only at the cruelty and selfishness of Miguel's double life when Santiago was alive, but also at the reasons for his hesitance to do right by Santiago in death.
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