No wonder writer-director Javier Fuentes-León's lyrical, poignant "Undertow" has been chosen as Peru's official entry in the foreign language category at the Academy Awards. Unfolding like a folkloric fable in beautiful Cabo Blanco, in an idyllic fishing community, it quickly casts a seductive, sensual spell. Beautiful Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) and her rugged fisherman husband, Miguel (Cristian Mercado), await the imminent birth of their first child. They are happy and content in this earthly paradise, inhabited by easygoing yet deeply religious people.
Adding greatly to Miguel's happiness is his passionate affair with Santiago ( Manolo Cardona), a worldly painter from the city. The shoreline is edged with isolated coves where the two can make love in absolute privacy. We'll never know how long the two might have been able to carry on their romance in secrecy, if Santiago had not drowned. He reappears to Miguel, not just as ghost but as a living, breathing man who is invisible to all others. Santiago, however, has reappeared to Miguel not to make love but to ask him to locate his body and bury him at sea in accordance with local custom and ritual so that his spirit can rest in peace. To do this, however, would confirm sudden and unexpected rumors of the true nature of their relationship.
Mercado expresses with passion yet restraint Miguel's progress from joy to agony, torn between his love and — indeed attraction to — his wife and his duty to his late lover and the myriad risks that lie ahead for him regardless of what he decides to do. While Santiago was alive, Miguel did not truly accept his bisexuality; now, in loss, he cannot escape the truth of it.
In a confident yet relaxed feature debut, Fuentes-León has created a wholly unified work of art, suffused in an inviting atmosphere, incorporating supernatural elements with the greatest of ease, compelling storytelling and completely natural yet succinct, sympathetic portrayals from his attractive stars and an array of supporting players. Gorgeous cinematography and a plaintive score complete the intuitively well-blended ingredients that constitute "Undertow."
"Undertow." Unrated. Some lovemaking, strong sensuality, adult themes. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. At the Sunset 5, West Hollywood.