Overview: A documentary filmmaker explores the truth behind the death of her uncle. Blackscrackle Films/POV/ITVS /LPB; 2017; Not Rated; 74 minutes.

John 4:8: It’s well past the halfway point of director Cecilia Aldarondo’s familial documentary when Cecilia’s mother explains that she loved Miguel, Cecilia’s late uncle, but that she also wished for the salvation of his soul through his repentance and absolution of his sin. By this point in the film, both Cecilia and her audience have learned that Miguel, or Michael as he preferred to be known in the New York life that he made for himself after leaving Puerto Rico, was a homosexual man who likely died of AIDS, not cancer, as their family frequently explained. In this context, we realize that Miguel’s perceived sin was his sexuality, and that his sister’s conflicting affection and wish look very similar to conditional love. The filmmaker takes it one step further and asks her mother if love under that condition isn’t just a form of hate. If it’s a tough question for her mother to answer, it’s also a tougher one for the filmmaker to ask. At least, it feels, because of the evident emotion in Aldarondo’s voice, like the most difficult moment in the film. Anyone who has had to contend with deep seated religious values in a loved one knows this, whether they admit it or not. Memories of a Penitent Heart, though it’s difficult to tell in the first act, is a film that is about this impossible moment and this incalculable equation.

Mark 12:31: In the broadest measure, there are two essays in Memories of a Penitent Heart. The first is a corrective biographical telling of a man whose tragically short life was lived in obfuscation and self-confusion. Aldarondo draws a compassionate portrait of a man of whom she only carries a single memory, moved by a love built through borrowed memory and bloodline. Miguel is drawn here through the testimony of his friends, his family, and his former lover, now a Franciscan monk who now goes by Father Alquin. If this essay is what provides the film its meditative breath, it’s the other essay, the more philosophical pondering essay about divine love’s incompatibility with unconditional compassionate love (and vice versa), that holds that oxygen in breathless confusion. The cinematic architecture upon which these two explorations manifest is an astonishing rhythmic mix of interviews and images. The most haunting of these images include the symmetrical and squared collections of relics from Miguel’s multiple lives and stained glass windows of Catholic churches with chipped paint on the legs of Christ and saints mirroring the oft-described but never-framed wounds upon Miguel’s legs. There’s an arresting energy between Aldarondo’s questions about family identity and her presentation of singular identity through pictures, an intersection of Sarah Polley’s ambition from 2012’s Stories We Tell and the approach of Chris Marker’s La Jetée from 1962.

Ephesians 4:2: Of course, there’s plenty in the space between. Vital and honest recollections of the 1980s AIDS crisis, brutal self-reflection of authorial responsibility in familial storytelling, and, ultimately, a hypnotic conclusion that sees an almost confessional surrender and repentance for attempting to twist Miguel’s life into a film-serving narrative. When Aldarondo calls her mother to reject her own film’s ending, we’re left both relieved and frustrated; that forced climactic visit felt every bit as generic as Aldarondo describes it, but at least it was something. In a film largely about unanswerable questions, it is at once fitting, infuriating, and merciful that we are at least left with more a more articulate and empathetic asking.

Overall: Memories of a Penitent Heart is a found poem—heartfelt, sincere, and aching in all the best ways.

Grade: B+

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Featured Image: Blackscrackle Films/POV/ITVS /LPB