Undertow is Javier Fuentes-León’s first feature film. Having won the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival 2010, it opened in the UK in August 2010.
Forbidden love is consistently central to art – simultaneously exciting and tender, illicit and idealised. These affairs are more romanticised than their conventional, trouble-free counterparts, and the story of star-crossed lovers, from Romeo and Juliet, to Anthony and Cleopatra, perpetually thrills. But these narratives inevitably focus on the love between a man and a woman, which Javier Fuentes-León eliminates in his first feature-length film, Undertow, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance this year.
Undertow unpacks a powerful love story in a small Peruvian coastal town between married fisherman Miguel and Santiago, an openly gay, rich holiday-maker, ostracised by the villagers for his Otherness. The marriage of Miguel and his wife, Mariela, is happy, affectionate and inclusive – they cook an outdoor meal for all the church-goers every Sunday, they are expecting their first baby and Miguel lovingly sings and jokes to his wife’s swelling belly. In light of this contentment Miguel’s secret affair with Santiago is transgressive, but it becomes the romanticised, pure love of the collective imagination against the conventionalities of his marriage. As the two frolic in the surf, on white sands under azure skies, we could almost be watching a love-song music video, but for the fact that mainstream audiences are so unaccustomed to the act of any representational homosexual love on screen.
This film is unique because rather than portraying the explicitly promiscuous, sexually predatory or saccharine sentimentality through which gay relationships are traditionally displayed on screen, Fuentes-León shows the couple exactly as he would a heterosexual forbidden romance – with tenderness, longing, and a common playfulness in the face of adversity. “The love between Miguel and Santiago had to jump out of the screen. I wanted to create a love story between two men that would move us like the great love stories that we’ve grown up seeing between a man and a woman, for general audiences to see that two men can love each other with the same emotional intensity and truthfulness that a man and a woman can.” While Miguel and Mariela play happy families, Santiago, is consistently ignored by the village, the offensiveness of his wealth, his art and his intensity fading into insignificance against his homosexuality in the conservative consciousness. Miguel’s own ingrained Catholic guilt quickly becomes apparent, because openly his religious zeal condemns homosexuality. When Santiago is involved in a fatal accident, Miguel cannot shake him from his mind, and he is frozen in purgatory in the village, with only Miguel as a witness. Miguel runs the gamut from sympathy for Santiago, selfishness when he realises he can continue his affair and keep his family, and finally at his lowest point, when his wife and the entire village discover the affair, to self-acceptance and respect for Santiago’s soul, in the face of judgement from all his fellow villagers, and humiliation for his family.
In Fuentes-León’s initial concept, Miguel’s lover was the town prostitute. It was through Fuentes-León’s own struggles with his sexuality that he altered the sexual orientation of the central relationship, “I knew the story would not only become more personal, but also would create a better drama. The stakes would be raised exponentially by having the main character have an affair with another man in a small town.” These explorations of the judgement of Catholic society lie at the heart of the story, and combine with the machismo of Latin American culture to create a confined, limited view of manhood, which is inevitably one-dimensional and infinitely fallible.
Undertow is rife with religious symbolism, and in accepting his need to be passed to God, Santiago, who was cynical in life, quickly accepts the traditions of religion when he dies, in a manner that reflects a widely liberal acceptance of homosexuality among moderate Christians, alongside their biblical beliefs. In this, Undertow creates an interesting subversion of trends with the liberal moving towards a tolerance of religious traditions, if not an understanding. Judgement dominates the village – not just externally, but internally within Miguel. He is, in a sense, the most homophobic of all the characters, deeply ashamed of his affair. He repeatedly refuses to accept his sexuality and instead revels in the duplicity of his life, where he lies to his wife, and keeps his lover in acute isolation for his own pleasure. As a central character, Miguel is hard to accept and sympathise with, particularly in contrast to his wife and his lover. These two strong leads inherently question the role of the “macho” in Latin culture: “I believe that Miguel finally behaves like a real man when he stands up in front of others and defends his love for another man, and in many macho societies that concept of masculinity would be seen as radical. But is masculinity an exclusive quality of heterosexuality? Is manhood defined by sexual orientation? I hope to expand the limited definition that we have in macho societies of what it is to be a man and to point out the failure of the macho ideal, which I believe has caused a lot of harm in our societies, not only to women, but to men themselves.”
The outing of Miguel is his redemption, by openly giving Santiago’s body to God, under the watchful eye of all the village gossips, and in spite of his wife’s protests, Miguel honours Santiago’s memory and legitimises the couple’s love. Deliberately ambiguous, it is unclear if this may be one humiliation too many for Mariela: “By honouring his love for Santiago, Miguel now has the chance of real happiness with Mariela, by the end of the film, he has definitely lost a lot of what he fought so hard to keep, but he has gained himself, he has achieved peace in his own skin and that’s an invaluable and crucial ingredient to a real and honest relationship.” In Undertow’s narrative it’s pertinent that no one love, heterosexual or homosexual, is prioritised over the other – although its illicitness imbibes Santiago and Miguel’s affair with the long-held mystique of idealised romantic love, Mariela and Miguel’s marriage remains romantic, tender and passionate at moments throughout the screenplay. While their passions are very different, each is displayed with sympathy and emotion, in a manner that makes Miguel’s dilemma all the more poignant. After his discovery, Miguel’s need to prove himself to his wife gives their sex scene an almost desperate tension, it is uncomfortable and yet it says more about the relationship in contrast to his easy nature with Santiago, and about its comforts. “Miguel’s love for Mariela is anchored in his yearning for security, safety, a conventional family, belonging to his society, and the reassurance that he is a good Catholic. His love for Santiago is based on the promise of a bigger and different world, full of possibilities.”
With Santiago’s appearance from beyond the grave viewers are asked to suspend disbelief, and the screenplay risks lurching into bad science-fiction. But instead Fuentes-León successfully engages with South America’s strong traditions of Magical Realism, and the emotions of the lead role root the events in human experience even when the circumstances are incredulous. “Looking back I was probably very naïve to not worry about the fact that I was dwelling in such a renowned and accomplished tradition. Fantasy can be very liberating when you are writing or creating a world, because it allows you to create myths, and if used well then the story can become more transcendent and universal.”Undertow was seen by many studios as a niche film and a long time in the making, allowing its writer to hone its romance and poignancy. Subsequently, Undertow, as the Sundance Award attests, has ingratiated itself to a much wider audience, through the eternal familiarity and universal appeal of its story.
Undertow was released in cinemas across the UK on 6 August 2010. www.axiomfilms.co.uk.