Not to be confused with the 2004 Josh Lucas Dermot Mulroney rural thriller, 2009’s “Undertow” is quite simply a delight. It stands as the debut feature of Latin filmmaker Javier Fuentes-León, but luckily his newness to the craft doesn’t show. Well-acted, made, and written, “Undertow” takes to the concept of ghostly unrest with a warm, offbeat spirituality.
The film takes place in a small Peruvian village where everybody is up everybody else’s butt by habit. Not a good place to be gay. So local fisherman Miguel (Cristian Mercado) retreats deeply into the closet, complete with wife and unborn child, while he carries on a steamy but loving affair with the village outcast and artist, Santiago (Manolo Cardona.)
Miguel’s wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) is a nice person, and she performs her wifely duties. Why is this happening to her, she laments as she becomes aware of Miguel’s unfaithfulness. When Santiago unexpectedly dies, his spirit stays bound to earth and remains with Miguel. Together they are happy, but Santiago’s ghost longs to move on.
There are no scares in this film, and no villains. Even the town gossip Isaura (Cindy Díaz) turns out not to be so bad. There are myriad differences between this and an American movie. First is Miguel’s lack of disbelief at his lover’s ghostly return. The body is missing, and Santiago looks the same. In a US film there would be lots of frantic, maybe comedic attempts to prove that Santiago is in fact dead.
Maybe there would be gags involving ghosts popping up at inopportune moments, and people walking right through ghostly entities. And maybe there’s a bit of that, but the whole thing is taken much more naturally than one might expect. Santiago is dead. He has come back as a ghost. Miguel almost immediately believes him because, honestly, who would make up a thing like that? He needs no proof. He goes on faith.
It takes a very spiritual society to do something like that with a ghost story. What proceeds is the touching examination of the men’s love from beyond the grave, and Mariala’s increasing grief and disenchantment. The men of the village are fairly homophobic, but they’re never portrayed as meaner than the plot requires them to be. The acting is great from Mercado (Miguel,) Cardona (Santiago,) and Astengo (Mariela.) All three are thoroughly believable in their roles.
If you’re looking for a scary, fright-filled horror movie this is not for you. If you’re looking for straight-out gay erotica this is not your movie either; the sex scenes are brief and non-explicit. But if you want to see a touching picture that will make you think and, perhaps, put a tear in your eye, this is for you. The supernatural element is pulled off gracefully, as is the human interest element. You will care about these characters, and you might even find yourself thinking about them when the movie is over.