Running Time: 74 mins
Certificate: NR (US)
Release Date: April 16th 2016 (Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere)
Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo certainly didn’t give herself an easy task when she set out to make Memories Of A Penitent Heart, as it involves her delving into one of the most difficult and painful chapters of her family’s history. 25 years before, her uncle Miguel died, with her grandmother insisting it was cancer, although it was almost certainly of AIDS (although interestingly Miguel himself was never tested, due to his beliefs about how people with the disease were being treated and stigmatised).
Miguel was gay, and had moved from Puerto Rico to New York to become an actor, shunning his staunch, Catholic upbringing to live authentically as himself, no matter what his family thought – even going as far as to change his name to the anglicised Michael. He’d also gotten into a relationship with a man called Robert. It is finding Robert that becomes Cecilia’s route into the story, as due to the strained (to put it mildly) relationship between Robert and Miguel’s family, they don’t know what happened to him or even his surname.
Cecilia sets out to discover what happened to Robert and get his side of the story, and along the way uncovers a raft of family secrets, unresolved anger, frustrations, different ways of remembering things and a death made even more tragic due to the homophobia, fear and tensions surrounding it. The film offers some fascinating insights into a time when AIDS upended nearly every gay person’s lives, often made worse by families that couldn’t accept their gay relatives, and a system that often seemed to actively despise the victims.
When it discusses Cecilia’s very religious grandmother, the film astutely shows how in her mind her actions were absolutely the right thing to do, no matter what turmoil it resulted in that still resonates a quarter of a century later. She was not a villain deliberately setting out to do evil – it’s clear she genuinely believed she was saving her son’s soul. That helps underline the tragedy of the fact that for Miguel’s mother, it seemed more important that she could claim her son repented of his homosexuality before he died, than to rail against the fact he’d been taken from her in the first place.
It’s impossible to say whether Miguel really did repent, whether he just said he did, or whether Cecilia’s grnadmother said he did to comfort herself and others. Whatever the truth there is a real heartbreak that for someone who’d done so much to be true to himself, for his mother the main thing that mattered was denying everything Miguel had strived to be, when he was probably scared and extremely sick at the very end of his life.
It also helps explain the conflict that Cecilia’s mother (and Miguel’s sister) still seems to have, where it feels like she remains trapped between who she is now, and the ghosts of her thoughts and attitudes at the time. There is still anger at Miguel, but it feels like she’s not entirely sure why, especially as even she doesn’t sound convinced about her explanations and rationalisations for things. There’s also a very different take between her and Robert on how she dealt with her brother’s sexuality. It’s impossible to tell the absolute truth – did Miguel unfairly attack a sister who wanted to be more supportive than he allowed her to be, or is she remembering things in a way that’s underplays how she treated him? As the film suggests, it’s almost certainly a mixture of the two, but it just shows how difficult a thing the past can be, especially when it involves guilt, misery and conflict that cannot be properly resolved.
Memories Of A Penitent Heart is a documentary that brings a very human side to the AIDS epidemic, showing how one family can illuminate how it was for many victims, and how a massive tragedy was often compounded by families who had never really accepted their relative’s sexuality. As Cecilia digs further and discovers secrets about her grandfather and others, it continues to underline just how sad and difficult it can be when either we or those around us can’t accept who we are, as well as the pressures and pain that family can cause when that happens.
It’s a story where few come out smelling of roses, but where you can understand where everyone was coming from – even if they probably shouldn’t have been coming from there. And in the middle of it all is Miguel, a man who set out to live authentically and be true to himself, but who got caught up in an epidemic that took his life. It left scars on his family not solely because he died so young, but also due to their own actions (and often inaction) and attitudes, with the result that it was tragedy pretty much all around, and in many different ways.
The film is not one that can offer full resolution, as it deals with situations and recriminations where the people are no longer around to fully resolve them. While there’s the possibility of forgiveness in some quarters, even that can reveal that people may not wish to deal as fully with their past as they think they do.
It would be nice to think that it’s a film that’s only talking about days gone by, and that with few people dying of AIDS nowadays and attitudes towards homosexuality having evolved in many quarters, we have moved beyond similar situations. However, it’s clear that the vestiges linger and fester, and can still emerge in different situations today.
At first with the film it may cross your mind whether Cecilia is exploiting her family’s past to get a juicy subject for a documentary, but it soon becomes clear it’s not that and that the pain of her uncle’s death is unresolved for her– even though she only has faint memories herself of meeting Miguel when she was a small child. It is perhaps more that she’s trying to understand how people she loves could have treated others so badly, and how something that seems so alien to her way of thinking could have happened to people so close to her – and been caused in large part by them – within her own lifetime. It is an almost chilling reminder that situations can resonate down generations and that while it would be best if things such as this never happened, at the very least we must learn from them so that they don’t happen again.
Overall Verdict: A powerful look at a family tragedy that uncovers secrets and recriminations that go far beyond a single situation. It illuminates both a particular time in gay history, and how far the pain family members can cause one another can go, even when in their own minds they believe they are doing the right thing.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac