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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Award Watch 2011 : Undertow gets snubbed

By Robert Nesti -

Manolo Cardona, left, and Cristian Mercado in Javier Fuentes- León’s Undertow
Manolo Cardona, left, and Cristian Mercado
in Javier Fuentes- León’s Undertow

When the Oscar nominations are announced next Tuesday, one film that you won’t see cited is Undertow.

Not that this magical film about a doomed gay relationship has a chance at any major nominations, but it was the Peruvian entry to the Best Foreign Film category, which would have given the opportunity to put Nominated for Best Foreign Film as part of its ad campaign.

Any hopes for a nomination, though, were thwarted when the Academy announced its short-list of nine films from nine countries that will be cut down to five next week. For the record, the list is:

Algeria: "Outside the Law", Rachid Bouchareb
Canada: "Incendies," Denis Villeneuve
Denmark: "In a Better World," Susanne Bier
Greece: "Dogtooth," Yorgos Lanthimos
Japan: "Confessions," Tetsuya Nakashima
Mexico: "Biutiful," Alejandro González Iñárritu
South Africa: "Life, Above All," Oliver Schmitz
Spain: "Even the Rain," Icíar Bollaín
Sweden: "Simple Simon," Andreas Ohman

But what of Undertow? Directed by LA-based filmmaker Javier Fuentes-León, it took a long time (some seven years) to come to the screen, and even then through it took a funding consortium from different countries, (including Peru, where the story is based) to bring it to the screen. Leon has said in interviews that he couldn’t find funding in the States for a gay film that was in Spanish. After winning the the Audience Award for World Cinema Drama at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film went on the festival circuit where it has picked up some 39 awards. When it was picked as the Peruvian entry to the Oscars, it went into limited release in the U.S., first in New York and Los Angeles, followed by other major urban centers, including San Francisco, Washington DC, Boston, Seattle and Miami.

Fuentes-León’s film - part love story, part ghost story - tells the story of Miguel, a married fisherman, who has an affair with Santiago, an artist who has moved to the small Peruvian village to be closer to Miguel. After Santiago drowns, his spirit returns to spend time with the fisherman and to show him what could be possible between them if this were a different world. Eventually, though, their secret love affair becomes public, with bittersweet consequence.

It’s difficult to say whether or not being snubbed for an Oscar will make a huge difference in the film’s reception in the United States. Its critical reception has been strong. "This small film’s accomplishments are many, but not the least is its ability to take a human story and frame it as a parable, without losing a bit of credibility or irresistible heart," wrote David Wiegand in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Writer-director Javier Fuentes-León’s directorial debut, Undertow, is sublime. Set in a small, picturesque Peruvian fishing village, it’s less a coming-out tale than a magic realism-infused coming-of-consciousness love story," wrote Ernest Hardy in The Village Voice.

And Manohla Dargis called the film in the New York Times: "A small movie with a full heart, "Undertow" takes an old idea - the loving, lingering ghost - and gives it reverberant, resuscitated life... More than anything it is the image of Miguel walking in the village alongside the dead Santiago, shyly and then boldly touching his lover because he finally can, that illustrates this modest movie’s power. Like Santiago this vision of an effusive yet mournfully compromised happiness lingers, and it will haunt you."

For EDGE’s assessment, click here.

Little is known of the nine films on the short-list. The best-known is Biutiful, from Alejandro González Iñárritu (who directed Babel and Amores Perros), largely due to Javier Bardem’s acclaimed performance. It lost at last Sunday’s Golden Globes to the Danish film In a Better World, Susanne Bier’s film set in Europe and Africa that explores the relationship between teen bullying and tribal violence. Also snubbed was the French entry, Of Gods and Men, a highly-regarded film about Christian monks trying to keep their monastery going amid Islamist conflict in Algeria.

Whether any of these films has the emotional impact of Undercurrent remains to be seen. With it Javier Fuentes-León has made the most affecting film about a gay relationship since Brokeback Mountain. It’s a shame the Academy is choosing not to acknowledge it.

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