Thursday night NewFest kicks off the 2010 season with Undertow, the first full-length feature film from Peruvian director-screenwriter Javier Fuentes-León.
Winner of the 2010 World Cinema Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Undertow introduces us to Miguel (Cristian Mercado, Che), a married fisherman and expectant father in Cabo Blanco, Peru, and his scandalous secret: a clandestine love affair with the openly gay Santiago (Manolo Cardona, Beverly Hills Chihuahua.)
When Santiago drowns accidentally in the ocean’s strong undercurrent, he cannot pass peacefully to the other side. He returns after his death to ask Miguel to look for his body and bury it according to the rituals of the town. Miguel must choose between sentencing Santiago to eternal torment or doing right by him and, in turn, revealing their relationship to the entire village.
With sweeping images of the beautiful Peruvian coastline, Undertow is described as an “emotional intersection of contemporary sexuality, confronted by tradition and belief.” NewFest spoke to Fuentes-León via telephone a day ahead of his appearance at the New York City debut of his film, to find out more.
While watching your movie, I thought about a comment Lesli (NewFest Executive Director Lesli Klainberg) made to me once about our film festival. She said that, while our focus will always be on LGBT issues, our mission is much bigger than that – to serve the larger community as a whole. It’s appropriate, then, that Undertow is the opening night feature for NewFest 2010, because, while it’s certainly gay-themed, it’s so much more than just a ‘gay’ movie.
It’s funny that you say that. A lot of people who’ve seen it tell me, ‘hey, that’s not a gay film,’ as if saying so is a pejorative thing. I’m flattered by the observation, because Undertow doesn’t just address a niche group, it speaks to many more people, which is what I wanted to do with the film. I’m gay, and I wrote it hoping that gay people would connect to it, because it’s based on my ideas and emotions about what coming out means to me. Yet, in many ways the story has nothing to do with me: I’m not a fisherman, I’m from the city; I wasn’t married, I wasn’t about to have a kid; nor was I cheating on anybody when I came out. But the intensity of some of those feelings, along with the fear of being found out, definitely were there. That’s why the film is so personal.
The coming out story of Miguel in particular is not mine, though I wrote it with gay people in mind. But I also wrote it for people who never have to go through this process. That said, I think the idea of ‘coming out’ can be used in other ways than to describe sexual orientation. Coming out is really about taking whatever steps you need to take to become who you really are. It can be about accepting a dream or a goal you always wanted to happen, but were afraid people would find out; or a political idea; or admitting to so many things people are inclined to hide because they’re afraid of being rejected. In my life, this is certainly true. I actually studied to be a physician in Peru and graduated with a medical degree. It was during my last two years of med school that I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor any more, that I wanted to study film. Bringing that in the open, though it was for a long time a secret, was for me the first step in becoming who I really am: This, too, was my ‘coming out,’ though it had nothing to do with my sexual orientation.
There is a strong religious throughline to Undertow, a highly personal touch as well. It’s so important to your central conceit of the deceased needing a proper religious send-off in order to rest in peace after death.
Much of that is of course based on South American Roman Catholic folk tradition, but as far as some of the specifics in Undertow go, well… I made them up (laughs.) While I give the funeral and burial scenes a much more mystical aspect than usual in my film, sure, that notion was definitely something that was ingrained in my Catholic upbringing, one that says a body should be blessed properly in order for a soul to rest. I think the idea behind the ritualistic burial at sea in Undertow is universal, though; for example, Hindus frequently bury their loved ones’ remains at sea, or in the Ganges River, et cetera.
Fair enough, but there are an undeniable number of pointed references to Christian themes and religious imagery in Undertow. The clear references to Saint Peter in the character of Miguel, for example.
Yes, of course. And then there’s the scene at the end in which Miguel is shown carrying the dead body, which is meant to suggest the image of Jesus Christ carrying the cross. That’s a literal representation of the old saying that ‘we all carry our own cross.’ It’s meant to be a bit provocative. The church says we are all made in the image of God. Why not represent the fact that this man Miguel – gay, bisexual, whatever you want to call him – is, of course, also made in the image of God. This may be controversial to some, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
You mentioned the references to Saint Peter. In the movie, you’ll notice that Miguel denies Santiago, his lover, three times, just as Peter denied knowing his friend Christ three times… It’s nice to be able to bring religion into the discussion of this story. I think organized religion, Roman Catholicism in particular, continues to play a tremendous role into how we view sexuality today, especially in how we determine what’s ‘wrong’ versus what’s ‘right.’
Something must be said about the amazing chemistry between your two lead actors, Christian Mercado (Miguel) and Manolo Cardona (Santiago), which certainly makes your storytelling that much more effective.
Because of the complexity of the role, I knew Miguel had to be played by a brilliant actor; the challenge was finding the right man. I always felt like Santiago could be played by somebody who was not from Peru, after all, his character is the outsider. But Miguel himself had to be Peruvian. At first, I actually had cast another actor in the role, a native Peruvian. He was a friend of mine, a great actor who is also one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever worked with, but after a certain point I realized he wasn’t the one. He just wasn’t believable as a fisherman; he was too refined. I later found a Bolivian, Cristian, to be perfect for the part. I met him though a Bolivian casting director.
Manolo was an obvious choice to play Santiago. Not only is he just beautiful, he has an angelic quality to him. I needed the actor playing Santiago to be someone you would adore, someone a married man could justifiably fall in love with, and not be seen simply as a homewrecker. A lot of friends of mine who are straight commented that’s what they thought of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Brokeback Mountain… I took that as a warning. I wanted to take the extra steps to make sure this character was someone the audiences would remain sympathetic to.
There’s an element of redemption in Undertow missing from Brokeback.
At the end of Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger’s character is, well, kind of pathetic. He ends up alone because he never really owned up to who he is. Yes, he goes to visit the other man’s family in order to bury him, but by then it’s too late. The message of Undertow is much more uplifting.
I also noticed a few references to one of my all-time favorite sex comedies from the seventies, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Bruno Barreto, Brazil, 1976) in Undertow. South American audiences in particular will recognize some of the humorous nods you make to that film.
Yes. There’s even a specific reference at the beginning of the film in the name of the aunt whose son has just died: her name is Dona Flor! Sure, in ways the ideas I use are an homage to that movie, in that I’ve always liked the idea of having two people symbolize different, complementary aspects of the ideal lover. In Dona Flor, one lover gives the lead character financial and emotional security; the other is a crazy hot gigolo (laughs.) I wanted to bring that idea into Undertow. You’ll notice in my movie how people tend to comment about Miguel all of the time, ‘wow, he has everything.’ But does he really? Here, as in Dona Flor, his relationship with a dead man, a ghost, is a device meant to show him what his life could have been like had he really accepted himself more… and not just carried out a clandestine sexual relationship with Santiago on the side, in caves and on construction sites. But my film is different, in that in the end, I wanted Miguel to become a man, and own up to the consequences of his acts.
From our film guide: An exceptional film balancing strong performances and gorgeous imagery with a powerful story. Young married fisherman Miguel develops unexpected feelings for Santiago, an artist new to the village, amidst growing community suspicions, increasing pressure from Santiago, and an unexpected supernatural occurrence. Q&A with director immediately following screening. Thursday June 3, 8PM.