There's a lazy critical shorthand that goes thusly: "Movie X is like Disparate Element A meets Disparate Element B!" It is a contemptible way to reduce movies to their most superficial elements, playing as little more than the writer's way of proving his superior knowledge of art history. Lazy and contemptible or not, I'm about to do it, because in the days that I've let Javier Fuentes-León's debut feature Undertow percolate in my mind, I've found it harder and harder to resist the urge to say that it resembles nothing so much as the queer film John Ford never directed.* Which is, at any rate, a willfully peculiar equation to any movie, and necessarily superficial and inapt, but still...

Undertow - or Contracorriente, "Counter-current", in the original Spanish, and I love that each title means something slightly different but in both cases very appropriate to the film - takes place in a flyspeck fishing town on the Pacific coast of Peru, where an otherwise unexceptional fisherman named Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is awaiting the birth of his first child with his wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo). Also, having a secret affair with the visiting painter Santiago (Manolo Cardona). That is in fact quite exceptional of him, particularly in a town as monumentally religious and traditional as Cabo Blanco, where Santiago is regarded with a mixture of disgust and car-crash fascination.

The Fordian bit comes in through Fuentes-León's treatment of the small town mores and culture, opening with an extended sequence presenting in rapt detail the villagers' idiosyncratic funerary rites, in which Miguel himself "presents" his dead cousin's body to God and then dumps the remains into the ocean, all part of an elaborate plan to make certain that the deceased's soul is not left wandering the earth. From there on, we get the customary depiction of gossipers and busybodies, with a solid dozen and more individual villagers scratched out in enough bold detail that we get the feeling of knowing them a whole let better than their status as featured extras should permit. Like Ford, Fuentes-León makes it clear that these people and their retrograde beliefs - concerning homosexuality, anyway - are manifestly in the wrong, yet he never thus tries to turn them into cardboard villains, or even try to blame them for their inherited small-mindedness.

(It's my fault and not Peru's, but I must point out that both of the Peruvian films I have seen in my life - the other is Claudia Llosa's 2006 Madeinusa - are both in their own ways message movies about the nastiness and hypocrisy of rural religion. Maybe Peru is completely fucked-up, or maybe I'm just lucky).

After a time, and this only marginally counts as a spoiler, Miguel and Santiago have a nasty fight, and the fisherman storms off, planning to never see his lover again. This resolve lasts not very long, but when he sees Santiago next, the painter has an unpleasant surprise: after the fight, he got drunk and went swimming and drowned, and now his ghost is stuck in-between here and the hereafter, for it turns out that the crazy funerary rituals aren't as crazy as all that. Miguel, for himself, is delighted that he alone can see Santiago and interact with him physically, which means in essence that they can continue their affair indefinitely without Miguel running any risk of being found out by his conservative neighbors. On the other hand, since this means that the chief problem in their relationship before - Santiago's unhappiness with Miguel's refusal to admit who he is and what he feels in front of everyone else - is only going to become worse, the dead man is not at all as excited about this new state of things as his corporeal lover.

By the time it gets to this point, Undertow has turned into a smashingly fine love story and character study, creating a slightly over-determined metaphor for life in the closet that never feels as stiff as it probably, objectively is, primarily because Fuentes-León and Mercado do such good work in always making the film about Miguel as Miguel, and not Miguel as stand-in for the universal gay experience. That said, it's what happens before it gets to this point that causes the movie some problems. Most of the first act of Undertow is slow-moving and plotless to an absurd point; and huge portions of the first 40 minutes or so play as a stereotype of queer cinema, the kind where the mere act of depicting gay men is held to be artistically sufficient in and of itself. I say this as, admittedly, not any kind of specialist in queer cinema, so instead let me simply argue that whether it's related to any perceived or real problem with gay films, the first part of Undertow is, at any rate, slow-paced and antsy-making, with none of the sensitive and tragic character study of the second part, nor the diverting magical realist plotting.

Even in the second half, it's hard to shake the feeling that this is basically The Miguel Show; Santiago is not ever much more than a prop, while Astengo's performance of Mariela is strong enough that it calls maximum attention to how uncertain the film is about her character: every time she pops up onscreen, we feel incredibly sorry for her, but when she's absent, she's written off as the most intractable of all the forces keeping Miguel in the closet.

Those concerns being what they are, there's still a hell of a lot to love about the film's depiction of a man standing in opposition to a community; and Fuentes-León and cinematographer Mauricio Vidal record the seaside village with a simply brilliant eye for how to place the individual within a space to express with the best possible efficiency what his relationship is to that space: lots of frames-within-frames and silhouettes and contrasts between structures and exteriors (and this too is extremely Fordian), all of it leading us through the film's straighforward but satisfying themes and ideas with driving purpose. It's a bit frustrating that Fuentes-León's writing isn't as fluid as his direction, but its somewhat clumsy, over-thought structure isn't enough to obscure the very moving story inside Undertow, and the completely engaging protagonist at its center.