Directed by Javier Fuentes-Leon
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic Running Time: 101 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0 stereo Spanish
MSRP: $ 24.95
Release Date: June 1, 2011
Review Date: May 6, 2011
After the surprise international success of Brokeback Mountain in 2005, expectations ran high that this marvelous, affecting film might be the first of a new wave of more openly candid dramas concerning matters of sexuality. The wave, however, didn’t happen. Unlike other bandwagons that movie studios routinely jump on once something hits big, storylines involving bi-curious men and women have not manifested themselves to any great degree, at least not in this country. Peru, however, submitted a film of much quality and substance for consideration for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, Javier Fuentes-Leon’s Undertow. Though it wasn’t ultimately selected for the final list of five nominees, the film captured almost fifty awards around the world for its notably adult story of men and women struggling with sexual orientation issues amid a society notoriously grounded in traditional machismo.
In a small fishing village in Peru, Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is anxiously awaiting the birth of his first child, a boy he and his wife (Tatiana Astengo) have already named Migulito. What she isn’t aware of, however, is that her husband is also passionately involved with Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a young artist living in the village but because of his reputation not widely accepted among the ranks of the villagers. Miguel is greatly frightened that their affair will be discovered thus threatening his marriage and his standing in the village. One morning he’s surprised and somewhat terrified to find Santiago standing in his kitchen, but he soon figures out that the painter has died in a swimming fatality and that his ghost, whom only Miguel can see, can’t rest in peace until his body is found and given a proper burial. Miguel, for the first time, can openly hold his lover’s hand in public and romp with him on the beach since no one sees anything but Miguel. The macho fisherman doesn’t know that Santiago has a studio full of nude studies of his body, all done without his consent. When the village gossip Isaura (Cindy Diaz) discovers them, she now has some ammunition for her own revenge against Miguel for turning down her own proposition to him.
Javier Fuentes-Leon’s script combines his same sex love story with an examination of the macho ethic still prominent in Latin cultures in a stylish but never overly flamboyant way, the ghost story element offering him a way to tread a little more lightly with the material and less melodramatically. The lovemaking scenes, both homosexual and heterosexual, aren’t overly erotic but are all filmed with care and discretion featuring tasteful nudity, the director’s intentions of fostering romantic longing and conflicted desires obviously paramount here. The script does stint a little in its examination of the societal expectations for the village’s men with hateful, disapproving glances and lowered eyes substituting for discussions about the issues at hand or confrontations with those whose traditional mores haven’t been challenged before. On the other hand, the writer-director fashions a genuinely moving climax for this film which offers some hope amid the uncertainty of the future, just like real life. The location shooting in Cabo Blanco, Peru, offers some stunning vistas both of the shore and the endless horizons at dusk that make for some breathtaking imagery.
Both of the leading men throw themselves into their roles with great fervor and achieve terrific results. Cristian Mercado’s Miguel, struggling to reconcile his conflicting desires for both his wife and his lover, works wonders with the character garnering a measure of admiration even after the character’s repeated denials of his true nature. Manolo Cardona, looking almost like a doppelganger for Ricky Martin, has a less complex character to play, but his return as a ghost offers the actor some prime moments to demonstrate regretful longing and some degree of frustration with his limbo state. Tatiana Astengo is a tad brittle as the wife registering rather predictable signs of betrayal and recalcitrance with her husband’s struggles (the weaknesses inherent in the character a problem of the writing rather than the actress’ performance).
The film has been framed at 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Color saturation levels are just about perfect, and flesh tones have an appealing tan texture appropriate for a seaside Peruvian village in summer. The transfer is woefully lacking, however, in sharpness. Apart from a close-up or two, nothing ever looks very sharp, and the overriding softness prevents details from coming through consistently. Blacks are only average in depth. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 9 chapters.
The disc offers both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 stereo encodes. The 5.1 track is very frontcentric with only Selma Mutal’s rather haunting music finding its way consistently into the rear channels. There are occasional sounds of the sea that have been Foleyed into the rears but only lightly and not very effectively. The dialogue has been well recorded and has been placed in the center channel. Bass on occasion has some real impact.
All of the featurettes, unless otherwise noted, are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
“Undertow: A Look Inside” has director Javier Fuentes-Leon discussing the genesis of his idea for the movie along with the casting process and the location shooting. The featurette runs 17 ¾ minutes.
Actor Cristian Mercado answers a series of questions about his character and making the film in a 5 ½-minute interview.
Actress Tatiana Astengo answers questions about her character and the amount of improvisation done on the set in her 5 ½-minute interview.
“Undertow: Behind the Scenes” offers an 11 ¼-minute look into the making of the film with director Javier Fuentes-Leon and cinematographer Mauricio Vidal discussing challenges they faced during the shoot.
There are twenty deleted/extended scenes which must be viewed together in a 23 ¼-minute bunch. They’re presented in nonanamorphic letterbox.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs for 2 ½ minutes.
A PSA for glaad runs for ½ minute and is delivered by actress Sofia Vergara. It’s in Spanish with no subtitles offered.
The disc also offers promo trailers for A Marine Story, 8:The Mormon Proposition, David’s Birthday, and Plan B.
4/5 (not an average)
Undertow offers something of the Peruvian flip side of Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven with a focus on the bisexual husband rather than the jolted wife in this well made and gently moving drama. A nice bonus feature selection completes this recommended offering for discriminating viewers.