Memories of a Penitent Heart may be, at 74 minutes, one of Tribeca 2016’s shortest features, but this exceptional documentary is also one of its most profoundly affecting. Often heard but never seen on-screen, director Cecilia Aldarondo digs through memories, mementos, and misconceptions in order to uncover the truth behind the 1980s death of Miguel Dieppa, a gay Puerto Rican native long alienated from his intensely Catholic mother, Carmen, and, to a lesser extent, his sister Nylda (the filmmaker’s mother). On his deathbed — from what was unofficially described as cancer but was clearly AIDS — Miguel asked for God’s forgiveness, though afterwards, no healing reconciliation took place between his family and Miguel’s longtime New York City companion Robert, who was so spurned and disregarded by Miguel’s clan that, decades later, Nylda still can’t recall his last name.
Determined to learn about Miguel, whom she met only once, Aldarondo commences an investigation that leads her to Robert — 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 felt forced, in distressed letters, to defend to his disapproving mother. Memories of a Penitent Heart contends that Miguel was akin to his Puerto Rican homeland: trapped between a desire for modern American freedom and a devotion to old-world religious beliefs. It’s in that uncomfortable middle ground that Aldarondo locates piercing revelations about her uncle, mother, grandmother, and grandfather Jorge — the latter of whom shared, to his great semi-clandestine shame, romantic desires similar to his condemned son’s.
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. Memories of a Penitent Heart is elevated by a mature recognition that two opposing truths can exist at the same time, as when Nylda — in discussing the part she played in her brother’s story — admits that, sometimes, you can ensure your own survival while looking out for others, but at other times you just can’t.
Amid traditional interviews and old photos, letters and home videos, Aldarondo presents dreamy tracking shots of Puerto Rican shops and sidewalks, the images attuned to her cinematic trip back in time. Better still, she emphasizes or complicates comments from her speakers (heard on the phone, or in old recordings) by juxtaposing them with evocative, subtly relevant imagery: a journey through a narrow waterway; pole-dancing acrobats swaying toward and away from each other; or a bird lying dead in the grass. Delving deep into the twisted tangle of her tale, she exposes the deep traumatic pain caused by loss, secrets, and the denial of one’s true self — and, in the process, paints a highly personal portrait of the importance of embracing who you have while you still can.