Contracorriente / Undertow (2009)


With man-on-man love in a small Peruvian fishing village, Javier Fuentes-León’s Contracorriente has Latin American machismo swimming against a high tide.


Breaking The Waves by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers.

Filmed in a small fishing port on the Cabo Blanco in northern Peru, Contracorriente could be anywhere. A small town of small minds, it could be Italy, Israel or Iceland. But with his Bolivian and Colombian stars, Javier Fuentes-León seems to have Latin American homophobia firmly in his sights with a gay blockbuster on how to be homosexual and not die in the attempt. It’s queer cinema at its finest, but can Contracorriente really net itself a mainstream audience?

Undertow isn’t quite right. The translation that is, not the film. It doesn’t quite manage all the meaning behind Contracorriente. It may encapsulate Santiago’s watery death and the traditional burial his ghost craves to be able to rest in peace or even the heavy homophobic baggage Miguel drags around, keeping his queer desires firmly under wraps (from the fishing village, his wife Mariela and above all himself), but it doesn’t quite catch the drift of the film, of a Peruvian machisto who learns to go against the flow and acknowledge his love for a man in front of everyone.

Miguel isn’t confused, he just wants it all. He wants a wife and a baby. And sandy sex with Santiago. He’s a man intent on following his desires, no matter that they’re slowly tearing him apart. Split between a secret romantic getaway and the imminent birth of his first born, he’s two in one – Chino, the respectable family man and Mico, the closeted gay lover. It may all be sellotaped together with lies, deceit and denials, but he likes his limbo, it’s the best of both worlds. Even if Santiago wants more than a love in the shadows, lived out in caves and empty houses, and Mariela wants a husband around for the birth of their son, who’s not always ‘gone fishing’.

It’s a purgatory that continues after Santiago’s death, as his ghost – seen only by Miguel – carries on the romance until they can find his body. For Miguel, little has changed. Santiago is at his beck and call, always ready to share his bed and his happiness at the birth of his son. And now he’s invisible, Miguel can finally take the plunge and come out of the shadows, experiencing an impossible idyll of being out. Hiding his tears in the sea, Miguel dives down for Santiago’s sodden corpse, tying it to a rock, happy to eke out these halcyon days. For Santiago too it’s just like before – an outsider looking in from the sidelines, a third-fiddle romance, solely dependent on Miguel for his happiness, his ghostly invisibility no different to the cold-shouldered outcast he once was. A visitor from the city, it’s easy for the townsfolk to hate him and ignore him, a blindspot they love to gossip about, but refuse to look straight in the eye. And it’s not until it’s one of their own that they have to confront the prejudice that haunts them.

The villagers’ homophobia is undiluted – steeped in long-brewed notions of family, tradition, church and scandal – unchallenged and unspoken. Nor can Miguel speak its name, hedging it in “I’m not like that.” And Contracorriente is as much about Miguel’s smouldering homophobia and road to self-acceptance as the town’s bigotry. In thrall to Latin American machismo and its simple-minded fallacy that a gay man is not a real man, he has to learn the hard way that, as Santiago says, it takes cojones to be a fag, and it’s his self-distortion that makes him less than a man. But his fear of emasculated queerness finds a friend in Mariela, who changes channel when she catches Miguel watching a Brazilian soap and not the footie. Or when they have thrusty sex, both trying hard to prove he’s a straight man after all.

It’s a delicious twist that in order to be a man again in his own eyes, he has to atone for his stinging denials and live up to the promise he made – to offer Santiago’s body to the ocean and let him rest in peace. Just when the villagers were starting to let (dead) dogs lie, he defies them, dragging Santiago’s enshrined corpse through the town. It’s a heartbreaking demonstration of his love that divides the community, the flirtatious gossip Isaura leading the charge of the more open-minded youth. The elders stay back, but as the priest, implored by Mariela, supports Miguel, he sows the seed for a change in their attitudes. A change devastatingly embodied by Santiago’s mother, who bitterly rues the wedge she drove into the relationship with her son by pretending not to hear when he talked about his new love.

Despite its magic realism, Contracorriente is brutally real. The ghost story with its themes of invisibility and fantasy is just as informative to its gay narrative as its homophobic truck and its Dead Poets’ Society culture shift. Unlike Brokeback Mountain or A Single Man, the narrative experience is essentially queer, a stone in the shoe of its hopes of becoming a bestselling blockbuster or an Oscar contender. But it’s a great coup to have Colombian heartthrob Manolo Cardona as the dashing painter Santiago, a casting choice which by itself should go some way to turning the tide in Latin American hearts and minds. And as the Audience Award winner at Sundance this year, there’s hope Contracorriente may send a riptide through the mainstream yet.

Contracorriente is released in the UK on 6th August 2010.


  • Andrew Williams says:

    Having loved Contracorriente so much, I went to see it twice and was deeply affected on both occasions by the depth of feeling that is contained within its simple yet surprisingly profound plotline.
    I’ve read most of the reviews of Contracorriente, but I would say that this is the most comprehensive review I’ve read – it really captures the essences of the film’s themes and I completely agree that Javier Fuentes-Leon has managed to bring out a film which is deeply moving and incredibly thought-provoking around the themes of love, loss, exclusion and reparation.
    A true gem, which resonates to the bottom of the heart

  • HI Mark,
    As an update on this film, Undertow has been submitted for Oscar consideration for Best Foreign Language Film and will be making its US theatrical debut in San Francisco on September 17, 2010 at the Lumiere Theater. More US cities will be added soon. We are so excited for director Javier Fuentes- Leon, his cast and crew and this amazing film.

  • Sonya Thomas says:

    This film made me wonder, and suspect even some of the men I have dated in the past. It was thought provoking, a rude awakening I really hurt for Miguel’s wife. She had to face her church and community, what a disheartening reality.

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