Film Review: Memories of a Penitent Heart

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Sometimes, bochinche is harmless. People talk trash, others listen and think nothing of it. End of story. But in other cases, bochinche is like a loose thread, one which director Cecilia Aldarondo began to pull, in earnest, more than four years ago. The result, a documentary entitled Memories of a Penitent Heart, provides an autobiographical look at her process of delving into her family’s difficult past, as well as reconciling her own place in the story.

The film begins with a soft-spoken narrator asking the question, “If we only remember the good things about the people we love, what do we lose?” The most obvious answer to this question is perspective. The filmmaker’s uncle Miguel died in the early years of the AIDS crisis, in 1987, just two years after President Ronald Reagan first publicly mentioned the disease by name. So there is a much larger history that parallels the search for answers more than two decades later.

From there, we can reduce the story into several emerging tropes. There is a religious component, magnified by the deep and misguided religious conviction of the grandmother, Carmen. This is compounded by the conservative views embedded into Puerto Rican culture. Seemingly unaware of this bias, several interviewees even question the intention of the film. In addition, there is the Dieppa family’s legacy of religious devotion revealed through Carmen’s own personal history of trauma early in her life. For this reason, Miguel's legacy, the one familiar to his niece, is divided between quiet rumors of his sexuality and self-serving nostalgia on the part of his family.

But once in New York, Miguel, also known as Michael to his friends, leads a second life, one that includes late nights and the assumption of risky behavior that goes with it. Repressed, yet liberated. This conflict is best expressed by Miguel, in his own words, through a haunting, yet wry monologue entitled, “Island Fever.” It is a portrait of the island as uninhabitable, (“Everyone wanted to leave, everyone wishing they stayed”) that is familiar to the Puerto Rican diaspora and gives the film its signature vaivén. But even the idea of leaving San Juan for New York becomes a tongue-in-cheek reference at the end of the monologue. New York is still hell, one of opportunity and vice.

Alongside the Puerto Rican narrative, there is also the loving partner, the close friends, everyone–family included–unable to participate fully in the grieving process because of the consequences of Miguel’s fractured lives. Above all, there is the sense of loss, an entire generation wiped out by the same disease within a span of two decades.

Simply put, Miguel was a Puerto Rican man struggling to balance these intersectional realities, with a love of theater and his own personal religious conviction–that inescapable guilt. This inner conflict plagues the film throughout. It’s the kind of tension that more traditionally stylized narratives try to avoid. Aldarondo, however, allows for things to get messy in the process of telling her uncle’s story–which makes sense both in terms of authenticity and at the risk of compromising the emotional resonance of the film.

Misdirection characterizes the initial mystery of Miguel’s death and the romanticized notion of a ‘penitent heart.’ Miguel’s mother alleges that one day her son repented for his homosexuality while on his deathbed at Columbia Presbyterian. It’s the only logical ending to the story from her perspective, one that allows her–as unofficial historian of the family–to live and die in peace with the memory of her son.

Naturally, this problematic account raises several questions. Did he truly repent? And if so, what was his exact motive? Did it really make a difference? And so on. But however critical this scene is in understanding the tragedy of Miguel’s story, it does not produce tension on its own, especially as the narrative develops and more characters are introduced. Moreover, that particular moment can never be recaptured, only placed into a more appropriate context–which is where the filmmaker leans on the serendipitous journey of recovering what was lost both before and after her uncle’s untimely death: memories. The thread unravels into a collection of photos, videos, home movies, writings, anecdotes, and other precious artifacts; things that help Aldarondo tell the whole story of her uncle’s life in a sort of a collage; objectively so, despite interference on both sides.

 

When Miguel’s partner of twelve years, now known as Aquin, finally resurfaces, some of the bochinche is converted to the intimate details essential to Aldarondo’s retelling of Miguel Dieppa’s life. For a creative, gay, Puerto Rican man living in New York City during the 1970s and 80s, Miguel's lifestyle is not revelatory. He went out at night. He probably did some drugs. He also wrote three plays, studied theater at Hunter College. He had a close group of friends who, like the director’s superficial understanding of her uncle’s life at the beginning of the film, are still dealing with an incomplete grief.

Memories of a Penitent Heart is both a timely film and an unfortunate reminder of the kinds of narratives that remain unresolved three decades later. The timely aspect relates to the theme of the 2016 National Puerto Rican Day Parade: an acknowledgement of the LGBTQ community’s struggle. This month was also the debut of Fuerza Fest, the first LGBTQ Latino Festival to be held in New York City. For Miguel, this represents an emerging community that can identify with his story on each level offered by the film; whether it be religious intolerance, family drama, complicated sexualities, or bicultural dysphoria.

In the case of the latter, the untimeliness that is, both sides were injurious to the other. Father Aquin’s credibility falters early on as he accuses Miguel of cutting his mother out of a photograph, though Nylda, the director’s mother, is able to contradict this statement with her copy of the same photograph. Nevertheless, it is Aquin who is symbolically cut out of the picture for almost as many years as Miguel was alive (thirty one to be exact). The two sides are incongruent, yet forced to confront one another in the context of the film.

This is most evident in the parallel between Miguel and his father, who is also the subject of rumors surrounding his sexuality. What Aldarondo succeeds in doing is avoiding the sensationalism of these deeply personal revelations, and instead, allowing discrepancies to exist, compete, and ultimately, frustrate one another. That Miguel died of AIDS though he was never tested for the disease, that he is buried in Puerto Rico though he made his life in New York, that he attempted to make everyone around him happy at a time when circumstances made that impossible; those themes are nearly overshadowed by the absence of resolution.

In the final scenes, the film attempts to stage a reconciliation between the director’s mother and Miguel’s partner in Orlando. Yet the only emotional breakthrough is one of resignation. What was lost was a chance for everyone involved in the healing process to acknowledge one another’s pain. It's not too late, but to truly appreciate the film, you have to carry that uncertainty with you as you leave theater. At the very least, Miguel’s legacy is faithfully preserved through the film–along with its disquieting take on emotional trauma when those left behind are also abandoned.


Memories of a Penitent Heart had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film was then acquired by PBS and will debut as part of its POV independent documentary series in 2017. The official trailer can be seen here.

Photo credit: Cecilia Aldarondo

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.