Memories of a Penitent Heart
Directed by Cecilia Aldarondo
Reviewed by T.J. Banks
Cecilia Aldarondo remembers meeting her uncle, Miguel Dieppa, once as a child. Six months later, “this fun, charming, seductive guy” was dead of complications from AIDS. To his young niece, he became “the talented young actor headed for Broadway” who was perfectly preserved in her grandmother’s scrapbook. There was no mention of the fact that Miguel—or Michael, as he’d preferred being called—had been gay. Or that he’d had a long-term relationship with an older man named Robert. Aldarondo’s documentary, Memories of a Penitent Heart, which she both wrote and directed, is about her search for the person behind the clippings. She talks with Nylda, her mother and Michael’s sister; an elderly relative; some of Michael’s friends; and with Robert, whom she finally manages to locate. The Michael who emerges from their stories is someone who “lived and breathed theater…[and] wanted to share that” with everyone—a deeply divided man who implored his mother not to judge him but who was also, in Robert’s words, “homophobic about himself.”
Some of the film’s most powerful moments arise from Aldarondo’s conversations with Robert, now Father Aquin, a Franciscan monk. He shows her his box of keepsakes from Michael’s “other life”: his wallet, his I.D. and credit cards, and a note from Michael himself saying, “I love you to the moon and back.” In her family’s eyes, he was, Robert/Aquin tells the filmmaker, “the outcast…the devil. The one who made him turn gay.” But he has his own bitterness to share—about having to keep to the background during Michael’s graduation…and later needing to get written permission from a doctor so that he could visit his lover in the hospital any time he wanted to. And he tells Aldarondo how Michael fought against having the HIV test because it “didn’t prove a thing” and was really a sort of “blacklist.”
The film is a weaving together of such conversations, photos, old home movies, and even a monologue from one of Michael’s plays. It holds together very well until the end: then, and only then, does the weaving begin to unravel a bit. But it is still a powerful work that speaks to the heart on so many levels.
T.J. Banks is the author of Sketch People, A Time for Shadows, Catsong, Houdini, and other books. Catsong was the winner of the 2007 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award.