Javier Fuentes-León's directorial debut feature "Undertow" ("Contracorriente," Peru 2009, 100 minutes, in Spanish with English subtitles), being given its Philadelphia premiere by QFest, the 16th annual LGBT film festival, begins and ends with a seaside funeral. The ceremonies look similar and, indeed, in both, the same individual offers up and consigns the deceased's body to the sea. One, however, is entirely non-controversial, the last rites for a respected individual. The other is a fraught affair, marked by village disapproval, and only selected supportive folks are in attendance.
The winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Audience Award for a First Feature, telling a touching and compelling "Brokeback Mountain"-meets-"Ghost" love story, that refuses to conform to "till death do us part," "Undertow" takes place in a small village on Peru's Cabo Blanco coast, where Miguel (Cristian Mercado), a fisherman, has two loves in his life. One is his wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), who is carrying their child, and the other, of the kind of love that dares not speak its name, is Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a handsome painter and photographer, an artist and outsider, not trusted by much of this traditional village.
As "Undertow" examines what it means to be a man, and to be a man who loves a man, in a small South American town, in which the Church plays an important role, Mercado makes it clear that his character has his work cut out for him, not only trying to come to terms with his gay tendencies, but also hiding his love for Cardona's devoted Santiago from the village and from his wife. We see the lovers experience some idyllic moments, on the beautiful beach and elsewhere, with tension underlying them, but not very far into the film, Santiago, caught in an undercurrent, meets an unexpected and untimely death. He tells Miguel that he cannot truly rest in peace until his body is found, and that he will stay at Miguel's side until that happens, but must leave him once that peace is achieved. Since no one else can see Santiago, when he makes more-or-less fully flesh-and-blood appearances to Miguel alone, Miguel finally gets a taste of what it might have felt like to be at ease in public with his male lover, falls further in love with him, and does his best to delay the inevitable of laying Santiago's body to rest.
Their situation seems ideal and idyllic once again, at least for Miguel, but when he cannot be with Santiago, his love feels well aware of the state of limbo that he is in. Things go awry when the village gossip, whose advances Miguel has rejected, accidentally discovers Santiago's nude painting of him and tells the townspeople, including Mariela, what she has found. Lovingly limning the male couple, Fuentes-León also treats Mariela and her plight sympathetically, and Astengo makes her hurt palpable, as she copes with the awareness that her husband was not hers alone, and with the ostracism and gossip that beset her once respected and now stigmatized family.
As Miguel meets Santiago's mother and sister, who come from a different class than that of the fisherman; discovers to what extent he served as Santiago's muse; and completes the rites that will irrevocably separate him from his love, but release Santiago from limbo, I defy the viewer to make it through these scenes without shedding a few tears.
QFest's screenings of "Undertow" take place on July 16 at 7:15 p.m. and 18 at 2:30 p.m. at the Ritz East, 125 South Second Street, in Theater One. For further information about the festival, which runs through July 19, visit http://www.qfest.com.