“Memories of a penitent heart”

I’ve restarted this review four times because I can’t quite figure out how to marshal my thoughts on Cecilia Aldarondo’s “Memories of a Penitent Heart.” Some documentaries strike you because they focus on interesting topics like wars, science, or bizarre people. Some are necessary historical documents, capturing footage of transformative moments that changed the course of humanity. “Memories of a Penitent Heart” claims to be neither. It’s about woman trying to investigate what truly happened to her uncle Miguel, a homosexual Puerto Rican who died in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Working backwards through a network of friends, family photos, and newspapers, Aldarondo uncovers a story of heartbreaking tragedy, of loss and pain and fanaticism.

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There’s Miguel, a joyful man who changed his name to Michael once he moved to New York City in order to distance himself from his religious (and ethnic) family. There’s Robert, now known as Father Aquin, his steadfast lover of thirteen years who, despite bearing the brunt of Miguel’s family’s homophobia, never lost his faith. There’s Miguel’s mother, renowned in her family for her purity and holiness, reviled by those closest to her by her callous willingness to toss aside Miguel for his sinning. And then there’s Aldarondo herself, amazed, enraged, and captivated by what she unearths. Some of the revelations are amusing—-one of Miguel’s close friends in New York City was Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale! Some are horrific—when Robert arrived at Miguel’s deathbed he discovered that his mother was literally smothering him with a near life-sized cross.

The subjects may be unique individuals, but they represent near-universal archetypes: the gay martyr, the abusive family member, the religious zealot. Perhaps that’s part of the film’s power. Another part might by Aldarondo’s obsession with static images. She fills her frames with geometric stills of photographs, mementos, and letters like a crime scene investigator or a forensic pathologist. Aldarondo makes the audience her partners and collaborators in her search. No wonder the film feels so immediate and essential despite the plethora of existing AIDS documentaries.

I’ve now restarted this conclusion an additional four times. I still feel no closer to finishing it. Maybe that’s because the only way to understand “Memories of a Penitent Heart” is to see it yourself. I hope you do. My words can’t do it justice.

Score: 8 out of 10

Nate Hood is Screen Comment’s main film critic in New York. Follow him here @NateHood257