Film poster for "Memories of A Penitent Heart" with collage of tapes, photos, letters, and memorabilia.
Film poster for "Memories of A Penitent Heart" with collage of tapes, photos, letters, and memorabilia.
25 years after Miguel died of AIDS, his niece tracks down his estranged lover and cracks open a Pandora’s box of unresolved family drama


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​BEST DOCUMENTARY - Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival | HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - Educational Media Reviews Online | RECOMMENDED ★★★ - Video Librarian

Latinx Studies • LGBT Studies • Religion Studies • Memory Studies • Film Studies • Psychology

Date of Completion: 2016 | Run Time: 72 minutes​​ | Language: English & Spanish with Spanish subtitles | Captions: Yes | Includes: Transcript & Discussion Guide Director: Cecilia Aldarondo

Combining a wealth of recently discovered home movies, video, and written documents with artfully shot contemporary interviews and vérité footage, MEMORIES OF A PENITENT HEART is a documentary that cracks open a Pandora’s box of unresolved family drama. The intimate lens of the film refracts on a wider cultural context: the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and in particular, how families treat their LGBT members in a Latin American cultural and religious context. A story about the mistakes of the past and the second chances of the present, MEMORIES OF A PENITENT HEART is a cautionary tale about the unresolved conflicts wrought by AIDS and a nuanced exploration of how faith is used and abused in times of crisis.

★★★ Recommended (Video Librarian)
Reviewed by Milton R. Machuca-Gálvez, Swarthmore College
"This is is one of the most interesting and provocative documentaries on recent LGBTQI+ debates for its delicate handling of the intersection between religion, sexuality, gender, ethnic identity, and colonialism. It is an exceptional example of the inventive possibilities of creating a personal documentary—a congregation of contrasting voices and a myriad of archival material held together by the clever use of an ingenious narrative strategy. Beyond its cinematic and narrative merits, it is a substantial contribution to the representations of Puerto Rico. The opposing narratives of a young Puerto Rican gay man coming to the United States in search of personal fulfillment, while asserting and determining his place in New York City, will help college educators in the discussion of issues of gender and sexuality in the Latin American context."

EMRO | Reviewed by Candace Smith
Highly Recommended 

American Anthropologist | Reviewed by Nell Haynes, Northwestern University
"On the surface, this is a simple biography, but an astute audience member picks up on important themes of migration, religion, memorialization, and the importance of material culture to memory."

Booklist Reviewed by Candace Smith
"Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo’s uncle Miguel died decades ago at age 31, and Aldarondo has always wondered about the circumstances surrounding his death. Poring through family photos and home-movie footage, interviewing family members (some in Spanish with subtitles), and reaching out on social media, Aldarondo begins piecing together her uncle’s life. This very personal documentary addresses some wider issues, including homosexuality, AIDS, ethnicity, religion, and family relationships."

LGBT Weekly | Reviewed by Steve Lee
"Cecilia’s Aldarondo’s beautiful and evocative film explores the difficulties of not only being Puerto Rican in America, but also what it means to be gay and shunned by your community, family and church,” said POV Executive Producer Chris White. “This personal and complex portrait of her uncle, and those who loved him, shows how hard it can be to reconcile religion and sexual identity—and, in this case, demonstrably clouds the line between sinners and saints."

The Village Voice | Reviewed by Nick Shager
"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."

Best Documentary | Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival
Special Jury Award for Emotional Honesty | Indie Memphis Film Festival
Official Selection | 2016 Tribeca Film Festival
Official Selection | New Orleans Film Festival
Official Selection | Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival
Official Selection | Guanajuato International Film Festival
Official Selection | Inside/OUT Toronto Film Festival


Society for Visual Anthropology Film and Media Festival
PBS 2017 POV Season

Download the Discussion Guide

Cecilia Aldarondo is a documentary director-producer from the Puerto Rican diaspora who makes films at the intersection of poetics and politics. Her latest film, LANDFALL, offers a prismatic portrait of collective trauma and resistance in post-Hurricane María Puerto Rico. Her earlier documentary MEMORIES OF A PENITENT HEART (Tribeca 2016) had its World Premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and was broadcast on POV in 2017. She is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow, a 2017 Women at Sundance Fellow, two-time MacDowell Colony Fellow, and recipient of a 2019 Bogliasco Foundation Residency. In 2019 she was named to DOC NYC's 40 Under 40 list and is one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film for 2015. She received the 2021 Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award from the International Documentary Association. She teaches at Williams College.