“Memories of a Penitent Heart”
Unresolved Family Drama
Twenty-five years after Miguel died of AIDS, his niece tracks down his estranged lover and when she does she reopens unresolved family drama. “Memories of a Penitent Heart” is 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, filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo uncovers a story of heartbreaking tragedy, of loss and pain and fanaticism. Miguel was a happy 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. Robert, now known as Father Aquin, was his steadfast lover of thirteen years who, despite bearing the brunt of Miguel’s family’s homophobia, never lost his faith. Miguel’s mother is renowned in her family for her purity and holiness, reviled by those closest to her because she threw her son Miguel aside because of what she considered to be his sinning.
The characters here represent near-universal archetypes: the gay martyr, the abusive family member, the religious zealot. Perhaps that’s part of the film’s power. But there is also the power of static images. Director Aldorondo fills her frames with geometric stills of photographs, mementos, and letters thus making the audience her partners and collaborators in her search. This is why the film feels so immediate and essential.
Aldarondo’s investigation leads her to Robert who is now a Pasadena, California, priest known as Father Aquin. She also meets many of his friends, all of whom describe a lifestyle of drugs, partying, leather-bar cruising, and joyous, infectious love that Miguel had to defend to his disapproving mother. He felt trapped between a desire for modern American freedom and a devotion to old-world religious beliefs. It’s here that Aldarondo discovers piercing revelations about her uncle, mother, grandmother, and grandfather Jorge who also had romantic desires like his son.
There’s irony in the way that faith, such a destructive force in Miguel’s family relationships, turns out to be vital for Robert in processing his partner’s demise. We see that two opposing truths can exist at the same time.
Aldarondo gives us gorgeous shots of Puerto Rican shops and sidewalks and she emphasizes comments from her speakers (heard on the phone, or in old recordings) by juxtaposing them with relevant imagery. She moves deeply into the deep traumatic pain caused by loss, secrets, and the denial of one’s true self. As she does we see the importance of loving who you have while you can for once they are gone so is the opportunity to do so.
Miguel’s grandmother insisted he died cancer, although it was almost certainly of AIDS (even though Miguel himself was never tested, due to his beliefs about how people with the disease were being treated and stigmatized). Miguel was gay and moved from Puerto Rico to New York to become an actor, leaving behind his Catholic upbringing so that he could live authentically as himself, regardless what his family thought. Miguel became involved in a relationship with a man called Robert. Finding Robert became Cecilia’s route into the story, as due to the strained relationship between Robert and Miguel’s family, they don’t know what happened to him or even his surname.
Cecilia set out to discover what happened to Robert and get his side of the story, and along the way she uncovers family secrets, unresolved anger, frustrations, different ways of remembering things and a death made even more tragic due to the homophobia and the 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 discussing Cecilia’s very religious grandmother, the film shows how in her mind her actions were absolutely the right thing to do, no matter what the result was and that is still true today. She did not deliberately set out to do evil; –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 deal with the fact that 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 grandmother said he did to comfort herself and others. There is heartbreak in that someone who’d done so much to be true to himself was denied by his mother.
Cecilia’s mother (and Miguel’s sister) still seems to be 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. Here 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 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 we can’t accept who we are along with the pressures and pain that family can cause when that happens.
There is no resolution in the film because those that could resolve issues are no longer here. There is, however, the possibility of forgiveness in some quarters but even that can reveal that people may not wish to deal as fully with their past as they think they do.
This is a very powerful look at a family tragedy 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. The film is a heart-breaking and compelling documentary is a passionate memoir to the Uncle that Cecilia Aldarondo could barely remember from her childhood.
We lost so many wonderful men and women in our community through this very dark passage of our history, and it is so essential that their stories are told too. In this film Aldarando planned to look at just one of them but actually honors them all— their memories are now filled with honesty and compassion.