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Saturday, December 18, 2010

With Him In Spirit

Dead lover teaches married man that safety is not everything

Manolo Cardona (left) and Christian Mercado in Javier Fuentes-León’s “Undertow.”

In an extraordinary, award-winning Peruvian film, “Undertow,” Miguel (Cristian Mercado) tries to balance his marriage to his very pregnant wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), with a clandestine romance with Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a gay painter and photographer.

When Santiago pushes his lover to come out, Miguel resists, saying he doesn’t want to hurt his wife and family or upset his close-knit community. When Santiago dies in an underwater accident, his spirit remains in limbo and his ghost appears to Miguel, but no one else. Miguel now has what he wants — the security of his home life and a loving relationship with Santiago.

Miguel’s selfishness — in wanting to hang on to his wife and his lover as long as possible — soon backfires, and he finds himself the object of anti-gay rumors and prejudice.

Writer and director Javier Fuentes-León deftly explores masculinity and sexuality in “Undertow.” On the phone from Peru, the filmmaker spoke about creating the emotional pull of his film.

GARY M. KRAMER: One of the most striking elements in your very beautiful film is how you incorporate all the natural elements — water, wind, earth, through sand, and fire, in a candle. Was that deliberate?

JAVIER FUENTES-LEÓN: I tried to use the elements to intensify the story. Water is a crucial element in the film. Not only for the plot — drowning, rebirth, and ceremony — but also when Mariela’s water breaks. So I reference water a lot. The title of the film also refers to the currents — not just the ocean, but the pull of the characters. The candle represents Santiago, the light of his Miguel’s life.

I never wrote about the wind, but when I arrived in the town where we filmed, it was a windy day. The progression of intensity of the wind and sand mirrors the intensity of Miguel’s conflict. We incorporated it into the story. The same is true with the sound and rumbling of the water.

GMK: You use magical realism very effectively. Why did you rely on the narrative device of a ghost?

JF-L: The way ghosts are seen in Latin America is different than in “Ghost,” the movie. That is why there are no special effects — Santiago is there the same way he was before he drowned — but only for Miguel’s eyes. I like the idea that Santiago’s death gives Miguel a new beginning. It’s a bittersweet irony. We know the best of both worlds will not be real and all-consuming — it’s a fantasy that lasts for a moment. It’s educational; Miguel realizes what his life would or could have been if he was openly gay.

GMK: Your film addresses elements of shame, respect, and responsibility, as Miguel is seen as a pillar of the community, then ostracized when his affair with Santiago is discovered. What prompted your sending these messages?

JF-L: I needed to balance not only my point of view but also the point of view of the society in which Miguel lives. When you are gay and/ or coming out, it’s what society imprints on us. I needed that counterpoint and to show why the prejudices come from the people who are closest to him and whom he admires. The [villagers] are calling him to be a good member of society, but the film is questioning — What is a good member of society? I believe that is being authentic and yourself. If you hide who you are, there is frustration; the price is quite big.

GMK: “Undertow” also addresses issues of masculinity/ machismo and what it means to be a man. Can you discuss this concept?

JF-L: I think that this whole machismo has rooted itself so deeply in Latin American society that it has done everyone a disservice. It not only has hurt men, but women even more. I play with those stereotypes — that men should play soccer, sit in bars and drink, and tell dirty jokes, and women should be passive and cook and watch soap operas. I don’t think everyone is that way, but it’s been rooted in our culture for years. I wanted to make fun of those ideas and question what it is to be a man. Is it dependent on sexual orientation? The idea that if you are gay, you are less of a man is ridiculous!

GMK: The lead actors are terrific together — you really feel their love and intimacy. How did you work with them on the characters?

JF-L: We never sat and talked about homosexuality and being gay. I didn’t take them to gay bars — we weren’t creating an urban behavior. We were telling a love story that happened to be between two men. If viewers only see the passion and sex, the love story won’t come across. Manolo said he would do the sex scenes, but emphasized it’s important to make this love come across. He and Cristian were conscious of what we needed to achieve. The love and the tenderness weren’t in the dialogue, but they did a great job.

GMK: Why did you dedicate the film “a mis viejos” — to my parents, my old folks?

JF-L: They are an amazing support in my life. I studied medicine and graduated from med school before I went to the US for film. My parents are not in the arts. In the world I grew up in, film was a crazy adventure, so when I made that change, they were supportive where others may not have been. They were my allies, and also when I came out — so I owe a lot to them.

It’s such a personal story, but not autobiographical. I’m not a father, fisherman, nor did I lose anyone I loved — thank God! — but it expresses my views about coming out and being out. Maybe it’s corny.


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