Arguably, the world’s homosexuals have the unfortunate distinction of being the most universally discriminated group. Even among racial, ethnic, or religious minorities and populations of economic scarcity – groups that commonly experience repression themselves – homosexuality is consistently (and wrongfully) looked upon as an abomination of self and community.
Certainly, nationality contributes to whether the individual enjoys legal protections for his or her declared or suspected orientation. However, such is the overwhelming power of social homophobia that it often permeates a person’s consciousness, indoctrinating him or her into something that transcends even shame: self-denial.
Writer-director Javier Fuentes-León explores this psychology in his 2009 debut film, Contracorriente (Undertow).
By employing a significantly fantastical element in an all-too-real environment, he masterfully illustrates the conflicting and destructive dichotomy between being a man – as defined and dictated by rigid communal tradition – and recognizing the true nature of oneself.
Set in a small fishing village on the Peruvian coast, Undertow opens with Miguel (Cristian Mercado) offering his cousin’s bodily remains to the sea. As this Christian-local folklore funeral tradition holds, only a loved one can perform the offering so the soul of the deceased can find eternal peace.
On the surface, Miguel’s life appears simple and pleasant. He’s employed, well-liked, and his delightful wife, Mariela, is soon to give birth.
Secretly, he is having an affair with Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a distrusted, fair-skinned artist who lives in the village as a retreat from his urban, bourgeois upbringing.
The village is idyllic with its expansive beaches, bountiful sunshine, and little sense of quotidian worry. It’s also socially restrictive; superstition, old-world traditionalism, and stringent Latin American machismo are unwritten rules that govern its way of life.
By employing magic realism, one of the features made popular by twentieth century Latin American “Boom” literature, Fuentes-León allows Miguel a vehicle with which he can finally experience all the virtues of an open relationship with Santiago. As a spirit, no one but Miguel can see him, and they are free to simply walk alongside one another without the piercing judgments by his friends and neighbors.
Realizing that he was shackled by the oppressive nature of his culture, his own mind begins to open to what would truly make him happy. Far from a blissful development, however, the situation is complicated with confusion, selfishness, and pain.
Undertow, the 2010 Sundance Film Festival “World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award” winner, is a visually stunning film with a strong story, whose message of social ostracism and internal prejudice can be applied anywhere in the world.
Undertow (Contracorriente) screens Friday, October 22, 7 p.m., at the UWM Union Theatre, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd, 2nd Floor. Tickets are $9, or $7 for students and seniors. For more information, click here.