Undertow isn’t the first Peruvian film to feature a character coming to terms with his homosexuality (Francisco Lombardi’s 1998 coming-of-age tale Don’t Tell Anyone got there 11 years earlier), but it likely stands as the country’s first gay ghost story. More heart-tugging mélo than spooky thriller, however, Javier Fuentes-Léon’s movie uses its supernatural elements to suggest, first, the quixotic fantasy of same-sex fulfillment and, later, the possibility of queer self-realization within the confines of a rigid, tradition-based society. But for all its beyond-the-grave fantasy, the film is mostly concerned with reality, which is to say it’s about a man raised on Catholic orthodoxy and doggedly defined gender roles accepting the fact that he’s gay. All of which may be pushing new ground in a country still developing its national cinema, but for American viewers burned out on simplistic stories of courageous people overcoming prejudice to assert their sexual identity, it’s bound to seem more than a little quaint.
To be sure, we need these stories, but there’s little virtue in telling them if we don’t peel away the surface layers and get at something deeper, no matter how many pretty shots of the seaside accompany the narration. (What effect Undertow will have in its native country is another question.) Fuentes-Léon’s greatest insight is that people tend to internalize their community’s values—so that even the film’s closeted hero, Miguel (Cristian Mercado), feels that his sexual behavior is a sin—and that being a “man” doesn’t necessarily mean being macho.
Set in a close-knit oceanside village, the film leisurely observes Miguel and his friends as they ply their fishing trade and spend their free time in communal activities like church going and beach barbecues. But all’s not kindly padres and good-natured beer-swilling: While his wife lies pregnant with his first child, Miguel sneaks off to end a relationship with his clandestine lover, Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a man who skulks the margins of the village, marked as an outsider by his light skin, his artistic proclivities, and his sexual orientation, which is a more or less open secret among the townspeople.
When Santiago drowns one day, his ghost starts appearing to Miguel, telling him he must locate his corpse in order to set his soul at rest. But freed from the restrictions of heterosexual norms by the ghost’s invisibility (only Miguel can see him), the fisherman refuses to dredge up the body after he locates it in its watery grave; he’s having too much fun being (to some degree) openly gay. Miguel revels in a newfound sense of sexual freedom, which Fuentes-Léon turns into a gently subversive series of scenes as the two men walk hand-in-hand past their unsuspecting and bigoted neighbors who can’t make out Santiago and think they’re addressing only Miguel.
These sequences function as a sort of utopian fantasy brought about by the supernatural, but they also eventually lead Miguel to move toward an acceptance of his sexuality. As such, Fuentes-Léon could have far more effectively probed Miguel’s moral uncertainty by leaving the question of Santiago’s tangibility an open question: Is he a ghost or just a figment of Miguel’s imagination? If we’re allowed to believe the latter is a likely possibility, then we can accept the two men’s interactions as Miguel acting out his psychosexual drama through projection, a far more narratively effective device than the simple supernatural appearance we’re forced to take as the only possibility when Santiago’s ghost foretells the discovery of his own drowned body.
Similarly, outside factors (specifically, the discovery of a nude painting of Miguel in Santiago’s shack) force the issue to the quick, as news quickly spreads of the fisherman’s secret. From here the events unfold with predictable regularity: Miguel’s shunned by his friends, has his manhood questioned by his cousin, and watches his wife decamp for new lodgings. Even Santiago takes his leave, though not before forcing Miguel to rethink his definitions of gender roles. It’s all pretty soggy stuff, as the ghost story moves from joyous play to easily digestible platitudes, and the town moves from their expected bigotry to a somewhat implausible and contrived acceptance of the gay man in their midst. In a moment of pique, Miguel’s ghostly lover tells him, “You…think being a man is having a wife and kids. There are thousands of ways to be a man and you’re none of them.” It’s hard to argue with this ready-made lesson (least of all for Miguel who takes its words to heart), but it’s far too easy to question the tortuous and often trite dramatization to which Fuentes-Léon subjects it.