Vito Bonafacci. Director: John Martoccia. Starring: Paul Borghese
Morally redeeming – heaven help us! – movies have a hard sell. Consider October’s Baby, which was extremely well acted and certainly on the right side of the culture divide. And yet…and yet…there were those heavy-handed moments in the script that betrayed the film’s self-consciousness about portraying the spiritual dimension of life.
Compare that to a good Bollywood film (oh, dear. Have I revealed too much?), say, Kal Ho Naa Ho (“Tomorrow May Never Come”). Although less serious in its moral intent than October’s Baby, it does tell a good, wholesome – wildly dramatized – story. Unlike October’s Baby, however, Kal Ho Naa Ho’s religious elements are completely “natural” to the action. The piety depicted in Indian cinema has no more embarrassment about going to pray at a Catholic Church or in a Hindu temple than about riding a motorcycle. It’s what people do.
Consequently, the viewer is comfortable watching. These movies may be theologically flawed but they do understand basic human nature and have their characters and have them act accordingly. Americans, conditioned to keep religious practices in the closet, have a very difficult time expressing that part of themselves in spoken media. Call it the last taboo. Our actors can shed their clothes and writhe convincingly in simulated conjugal pleasure but are painfully stilted speaking to their on-screen clergy, who are equally awkward.
Vito Bonafacci – which is theologically unassailable and visually very beautiful – is a product of its culture. It tells the story of a materially-successful, middle-aged man who is excoriated for leading a hollow life by his deceased Italian mother, who visits him in a dream. He wakes up, haunted by her words, and spends the rest of the movie in a dramatic interior struggle to return to the faith of his childhood.
The acting is great fun, particularly if you are familiar with New York-New Jersey Italian types that hide an expansive generosity under their brusqueness. However, the script is plagued by the same heavy-handedness that mars so many other “religious” movies – didactically well-intentioned at the expense of a good story. Some scenes are rendered almost as mini-catechism lessons that, frankly, made the viewers at my house cringe. Actor Paul Borghese does an excellent job of putting real pathos into the meager material he’s given but a man can only do so much.
The problem, one suspects, lies with the fact that the very talented John Martoccia wrote, produced, and directed Vito Bonafacci. Any one of these jobs would be impressive enough but pulling off all three at once is quite an undertaking. The film could really have used another writer – meaning it would have been taken, perhaps, in other directions.
Like October’s Baby, there needed to be a more developed back story. Perhaps we’d learn that Vito’s mother was a more complicated, interesting woman than we see. Perhaps Vito’s sins are deeper than spiritual laxity. The dark side of his nature, of which we catch glimpses, barking at his wife and household staff, suggests material that could be mined to great profit. Story-telling is a mysterious business. Big ideas like “redemption” are often best conveyed obliquely, as part of a milieu that simply is, without added finger-pointing.
There are so many truly lovely aspects to this movie: scenes filled with wide, rolling hills that are bathed in golden light, elegant classical music, solid values, good actors, and a compelling premise. As the first major project of John Martoccia, Vito Bonafacci demonstrates tremendous potential.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper.