As a long-time viewer (and part of the "target audience") of gay-oriented cinema, I've become extremely wary of that particular subgenre of independent film. I've learned the hard way that the (perhaps understandable) priority for the LGBT film festival circuit is not necessarily the most creatively considered and most thoughtfully executed filmmaking possible, but "affirmative" films that sympathetically acknowledge the struggles of sexual minorities--coming out, social and family acceptance or lack thereof, etc.--and offer a supportive reminder of our equal right to exist and love. Sometimes, there's an encouraging overlap between the sociopolitical concerns of "queer cinema" and the artistic concerns of filmmaking; movies as interesting and accomplished, by any standard, as Todd Haynes's Poison, Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol, and Ira Sachs's The Delta have come to light in part thanks to the endorsement of a network of gay film festivals. But it seems the gay-film ghetto more often produces versions of simplistic mainstream romantic comedies (like Jeffrey and The Broken Hearts Club) and social dramas (Miles Swain's The Trip) that merely insert gay characters and issues into a sort of by-the-numbers template, rendering the films utterly safe and harmless in every respect other than the sexual orientation of their characters. Peruvian filmmaker Javier Fuentes-León's debut feature, Undertow (Contracorriente) exists uneasily somewhere in the limbo between those two extremes. It oscillates back and forth, from a movie-of-the-week handling of the "problem" or "issue" of being gay to a more thoughtful, complex cinematic approach to characterization and dramatic circumstance that, had it been followed through on more diligently, could have made for something more remarkable.
Miguel (Cristian Marcado, Che) seems entirely well-integrated into his small, very traditional, very Catholic fishing village on the coast of Peru, where he works as a fisherman and leads an apparently very fulfilled and idyllic family-man existence with his wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), with whom he is expecting a child. But when some fatal events lead to suspicions and rumors that threaten to expose Miguel's secret, ongoing affair with Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a more or less openly gay and therefore ostracized painter who has remained in the village because of his love for Miguel, Miguel's burgeoning family and his standing among his macho, homophobic group of colleagues and friends are jeopardized, and he is eventually forced to choose between being true to himself or continuing to hide his real identity under a reassuring but confining guise of "normality."
All the performances, both in principal and supporting parts, are quite good: Tatiana Astengo as Mariela and Marcado as Miguel are particularly convincing and moving as they play the complicated emotions between a husband and wife who are bound to misunderstand and hurt each other even as they share genuine affection, loyalty, and the sincerely felt bonds of parenthood. But what writer/director Fuentes-León gives them to work with is not always worthy of their commitment. There is a clunky, made-for-TV quality to much of the unnecessary expository dialogue, and an unsatisfying, overdetermined neatness to the ways in which the characters and their actions are (over)explained, both in their individual development and in how they relate to one another. An overabundance of dramatic turns and twists presents itself with too little subtlety; more often than not, the characters, whose situations and personalities would have been rich with dramatic possibilities given a more confident, appropriately observant and sensitive approach, seem like not much more than pieces in a plot machine whose main purpose is to run smoothly and regularly, explaining itself all the while in case we are dense or not paying close enough attention. That diagrammatic approach can work very well for thrillers, noirs, or heist films in which emotions can be sufficiently implied and are not central to the film; when it comes to depth of human feeling and emotional conflict, however, that harried rush of information breezes right over any substance that might be lurking in the dramatic situation.
Some of Undertow's technical aspects also detract from its potential substantiveness. Mauricio Vidal's cinematography, while pleasant and pretty to look at, frequently has a flattened, overpolished, picture-postcard quality that ultimately means the film looks fine but lacks any real visual distinctiveness; the photography never seems to have been strategized to add much beyond sunshine-and-sand atmosphere to every scene, aptly or not. And Selma Mutal Vermuelen's score, all gently strumming guitars and tinkling piano, does nothing to remedy the film's TV-movie failings.
For the film's final third, Fuentes-León manages to slow and quiet things down, giving the characters some room to breathe and to show, rather than hurriedly tell, the contradictory and not easily summarized things they are feeling and responding to in themselves and each other. Unlike far too much cinema, gay or straight or otherwise, this last and by far finest section of Undertow avoids any sense of contorting itself to be "affirmative" or "uplifting." The film's climactic final scenes reach a fairly nuanced emotional conclusion, not at all absent of hope, but without the false reassurances or jarringly disproportionate reconciliations we're all familiar with from many a bad, obligatory happy ending.
Wolfe Video's anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation of Undertow on blu-ray, at 1080p, is very nice. The video has all the texture, clarity, and warmth and vividness of color that one would experience watching a brand-new print of the film on the big screen.
Viewers are offered the choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks. The 5.1 soundtrack is clear and full, filling each speaker with the appropriate levels of dialogue or background noise, with no static or any other sound flaws to speak of.
Extras include a fairly standard promotional featurette on the making of the film, as well as Undertow: A Look Inside, a more in-depth interview with writer/director Javier Fuentes-León on his inspiration, creative process, and shooting the movie. Brief stand-alone interviews with stars Cristian Mercado and Tatiana Astengo feature the actors offering their takes on their characters and the film's meaning and reception. There is also a 23-minute montage of deleted scenes (most of which would have just been more over-exposition in a film already too long on such) and the film's theatrical trailer, which makes the common mistake of attempting to hide the film's "foreign"-ness by omitting any dialogue/subtitling and opting for sweeping music as its sole soundtrack. Finally, there is a 30-second public service announcement, not directly related to the film, on behalf of GLAAD (The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and apparently intended for the disc's Spanish-speaking viewers exclusively, as it is not subtitled.
While it avoids succumbing completely to the bland template of too much gay-oriented cinema, Undertow is a bag too full and too mixed to get very excited about. Some may find that, if they can follow it through to its more interesting and emotionally nuanced conclusion, the ratio of pedestrian to more insightful filmmaking makes it ultimately worthwhile. That's a call that can most safely be made if you Rent It.