by Sam Juliano
At the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival former President Bill Clinton introduced the documentary Bridegroom, which was directed by his good friend Linda-Bloodworth Thomason. Funded by kickstarter, the film garnered the coveted Audience Award for Documentary, and deeply moved many with its story of a shunned gay lover by the family of the partner who died in a tragic accident. An assistant film professor in a Florida college, and the niece of a gay man who died of AIDS in 1987, Cecelia Aldarondo opens up a proverbial can of worms in her own examination of her uncle’s past, while both outing him and finding his demonized lover for a vital contribution for the work. Like the Thomason documentary, Aldarondo has also relied on kickstarter for funding and has told her story with aching poignancy, divulging some guarded secrets and misconceptions that have long dogged the perceptions of family members. Aldarondo and her kin, all born in Puerto Rico to a rigid Catholic upbringing, were told that Miguel died of cancer. When his story is told it is clear the cause was AIDS related. One comes away with not only an understanding of what tore apart a once solid family dynamic, but also how religious and culture bigotry are brought to bear on a lifestyle rejected by familial traditions and the conviction it violates the tenets of Catholicism.
Miguel’s sexual leanings were given free reign after he moved from his Caribbean home to New York City, where he found gleeful refuge in the theater. He met “Robert” and embarked upon a gay relationship kept under the wraps of long distance cover. In the film’s major irony, Robert has served as a clergyman, but abandoned the pursuit during the years of his relationship with Michael, only to return years later as the only way to achieve peace of mind. When Aldarondo finally tracked down Robert after some initial failures, the surviving partner was as candid as he was unrepentant for the relationship that was fueled by mutual passions. In a telling phone conversation he informed Aldarondo that Michael’s mother -the director’s grandmother- never abandoned her belief he was responsible for her son’s altered sexual orientation. No attempt by Aldarondo to interpret the long impasse between her grandmother and her uncle’s lover as a “misunderstanding” changed Robert’s perception that he was seen as a morally injurious influence on an unwitting accomplice, and in the initiating phone conversation he candidly confirms the long running hostility.
Alderondo skillfully weaves Michael’s budding career in the theater with home movie clips, recorded conversations with her uncle and some commentary excepts from Robert that includes several photo confirmations that they were a couple. The director admitted in a Q & A after a screening in the Bow Tie Cinemas that the decision to out anyone -especially after their death- is a precarious one that offers no conclusive answer. In Michael’s case (and he fiercely insisted that he be referred to by his American name – a clear signal that his parting with his Puerto Rican roots was also a repudiation of the rigid religion and ethnicity that rejected his homosexuality. The early days of AIDS epidemic are alluded to, especially in the context that many Latino artists finding refuge in the Gotham melting pot met their own untimely ends when diagnosis led to certain fatality. But Memories of a Penitent Heart is an intimate examination of guilt, ignorance and intolerance at a time when following one’s orientation always involved geographical relocation and limited contact with long adored family members. Michael’s story is hardly unique, and little by way of the scene specifics could be described as eye opening. In fact there are many untold stories that can be asily mistaken for the one Alderondo tells here.
Memories of a Penitent Heart is narratively fueled by the tragedy of a young life snuffed out long before its time, and as such it has built in emotional power. The film is subtly orchestrated, never damning any of its players, but making it clear the place and era one lives in will often create the familial dynamic. Michael’s lifestyle today is well within the confines of the norm, but 30 years ago it instigated suffocating compromises that had unavoidably painful and heart-rending repercussions. As Alderando admitted, it was a story that needed to be told.
‘Memories a Penitent Heart’ will be again screened on Wednesday at 9:15 and Saturday at 5:00 at the Bow-Tie Cinemas.