Peruvian twist

Pub date September 14, 2010
SectionFilm Review

FILM At first glance Undertow doesn’t really seem a bona fide "great"
movie — time will tell. But it manages so many qualities seldom found together, or pulled off at all, that respect is due. It’s sensuous and erotic without becoming puerile fantasy; renders remote, beach-y locations alluring without pandering postcard exoticism or turning the people who live there peasant-quaint. More impressive still, it seamlessly folds magic realism — that very literary quality — into an already well-in-progress narrative
without losing any of the emotional groundedness already established.

Plus: it takes bisexuality for granted, sans salaciousness or melodrama, even if two gender-differentiated loves here provide primary conflict. But the issue isn’t "Choose your side, fence-sitter." It’s "How to handle being in love with two people at once?" Which is always difficult — particularly when one is a guy and the other your wife.

Even today in San Francisco’s gay community you can find plenty of folks whose imagination can’t quite encompass bisexuality as more than a PC camouflage term for those who resist taking one side or another. They’re self-justifying sluts, or outwardly homophilic but inwardly homophobic types who cling to socially comfortable straight relationships while stringing along gay or lesbian ones they’re actually passionate about. Such are the stereotypes.

A reverse scenario is offered up in The Kids Are All Right, which I love — yet Julianne Moore’s very physical affair with Mark Ruffalo ultimately proves only that her "real" relationship is with Annette Bening. He’s a diversion; she’s not really bisexual, just menopausal-restless.

Like most stereotypes, all of the above are occasionally echoed in real life. But movies seldom illustrate the not-uncommon mindset that might fall in love or lust with a person regardless of gender. Societal judgment being what it is, such sexual egalitarianism is seldom an easy path.

Here, Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) are their humble coastal village’s starriest young married couple, leaders at church and in general the kind of people everyone else just knows will do right. He’s a fisherman (the major industry there), she’s pregnant for the first time. They’re both thrilled about that.

Yet Miguel has a very big secret: a passionate affair with upper-class inlander Santiago (Manolo Cardona), who rented a beach cottage to paint nature but now lingers on out of fervent love. Having his cake and eating it too, Miguel is in anxiety-tinged heaven. He truly loves Santiago. But he also loves his wife, their unborn child, their village status. Imagining a life for them together, Santiago is tormented by Miguel’s absolute unwillingness to compromise his status quo.

At a certain point something occurs offscreen, and the dynamic between the two men changes. Not drastically, though — even as Undertow turns into a ghost story of sorts, its characters’ passions remain stubbornly problematic, just as they were before.

Javier Fuentes-Leon is an exceptionally assured debuting feature writer-director. Undertow might easily have let commercial tides drift it toward routine soft-core fantasy, like so many features traveling the annual gay-fest circuit to eventual DVD-Netflix-download profitability. But its attractive, scruffy male leads aren’t buffed that way, and Mariela isn’t a nag or third wheel but an equally sympathetic, fully dimensionalized player in a painfully awkward triangle.

Undertow won the Sundance World Dramatic Audience Award last January. That was one testimony it can’t be pigeonholed as a gay movie, any more than The Kids Are All Right is a mere chick flick. It challenges strictly gay and straight-identified audiences alike, finessing that so smoothly few who pony up will ultimately realize they’ve been finessed. It’s lovely, lyrical, near-universally romantic, and ends on a quiet grace note that is bittersweet perfection.

UNDERTOW opens Fri/17 in Bay Area theaters.