Sunday, 22 July 2012

VITO - Review By Greg Klymkiw

Vito (2011) dir. Jeffrey Schwarz


Review By Greg Klymkiw

Growing up in New Jersey during the 1950s, young Vito knew early on that he wasn't like the other boys. Though warm and quick-witted, he was smack in the middle of post-war Italian Catholic machismo and always felt out of place amidst the rough, and tumble posturing of his peers.

Besides, Vito loved movies more than anything.

At an almost insanely early age, he was the first in his family to figure out how to use public transit. Most of his relatives and their friends never bothered to leave the neighbourhood. Vito, on the other hand, had little use for the insular world afforded to him by Jersey. Venturing into Manhattan yielded unrestricted access to his first love - the movies.

Following closely behind his passion for celluloid was Vito's burgeoning manhood - all the normal hormones raging, this led to an even greater discovery. In New York's Central Park, a seemingly endless line of park benches were filled with other men - all ages, shapes and sizes.

And they were all looking for the same thing.

It was here that Vito found acceptance amongst his "own kind" and discovered the joys of fleshly love. Mad, passionate, anonymous encounters were just what the doctor ordered. Alas, the doctor's name was Jekyll, furtively hiding the "beast" within - the Mr. Hyde of sexuality.

In the 50s and 60s, "aberrant" desires alone were enough to represent the influence of Beelzebub himself, but the very fulfilment of said desires not only instilled shame and a need for secrecy amongst the denizens of this secret club, but the one place that should have offered understanding, compassion and sanctuary did nothing of the kind.

Vito began confessing his "sinful" dalliances every week to the parish priest who gravely warned him that eternal hellfire would be the result of saluting the Rainbow Flag. Eventually, the less-than-kindly man of God blew his top (not the one that "counts") and declared he would no longer grant absolution to our young, gay Vito. He would be denied the flesh and blood of Christ until resolving to stop these sinful practises.

Though Vito always knew he was different, he had now found those who were likeminded, but instead of celebration, he and so many other homosexuals discovered that discrimination, disdain and outright hatred was packed into the pot at the end of the rainbow.

This, decided young Vito Russo, was wrong.

And he was going to do something about it.

Jeffrey Schwarz's superbly crafted feature documentary is dazzling! Vito, an always-compelling biography of a young man who became the most important activist for the rights of gay people in America is a movie that crackles with intense dramatic resonance. With peerlessly selected and edited archival footage, blended with new interview material, Schwarz delivers a movie that's as entertaining as it’s incendiary, as soaringly joyful as it is profoundly moving.

Following Vito’s incredible story in any way, shape or form would hold one’s interest, but Schwarz assembles the material with such drive and passion that watching the movie inspires the same feelings one gets whenever one is utterly smitten with a call to arms. Here, though, it’s a veritable cross-country road race of emotion. Schwarz places you so expertly in the various periods of Vito’s life while at the same time he manages to carve out actual nuance of character so that we’re embroiled in the narrative, swept along with the tide that is Vito and at times, impelled to action (or at least to imagine we are).

Granted, Schwarz has a phenomenal subject, but he delves into said subject with all the skill and artistry he can muster to deliver a movie that’s part biographical narrative, part history lesson (albeit a very thrilling one) and finally, utilizing all the skills and craft of a seasoned documentarian, he blasts through the barriers of expectation in the genre to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Astonishingly, for anyone who knows the arc of Russo's life, you're still sitting there hoping, almost demanding it will not go where you know it's going to go. And even when it gets there, Schwarz deals his cinematic cards so deftly that he delivers a climax and denouement that even the "converted" will be thrilled with.

Vito Russo's brilliance, understanding, wit, sensitivity and desire to bring people together were instrumental in rallying the Gay Nation to demand the same rights afforded to ALL Americans and allow them a safe, free and fulfilling life. Almost every major rally and protest involving gay rights was led with the commanding presence of Russo - brave, articulate, visionary, strong as steel and an orator of considerable panache and persuasion.

His love for movies, let to groundbreaking research in the field of gay images in film and resulted in "The Celluloid Closet", one of the most important books in the canon of cinema scholarship (and a bestseller to boot). Russo turned the book into a live performance/lecture with clips and toured it for 10 years. This resulted in his stirring activism that inspired a whole movement that challenged and examined gay imagery in popular culture.

And lest we forget Russo's most important and passionate fight during the AIDS epidemic when an entire generation of young men suffered, died and did so mercilessly when the American government and pharmaceutical companies turned a blind eye to this horrendous disease and the Right Wing Bible Thumping psychos used it as proof positive that God was punishing these aberrant sinners.

Russo, of course, would reject it from the grave, but if anyone deserves canonization in recent history, it's Vito.

Vito Russo fought for Gay rights, but in so doing, he fought for all of those who felt marginalized, disenfranchised, ignored, bullied and condemned. The Queer Nation is such a vital segment of the human experience that it's impossible to think where civilization would be without the input and influence of Queer Culture.

Jeffrey Schwarz, in making this important film is part of that contribution. This is a movie that MUST be seen by as wide an audience as possible and frankly, it's not enough for the film to appeal to only the "converted". Vito's story and the manner in which it's rendered by Schwarz yields a film that DEMANDS being utilized by every educator as an audio visual teaching aid within the syllabi of every middle school and high school. It is history, and as such should be presented with all the vitality educators can muster when they present overviews of how our lives were shaped by individuals and events of the 20th Century.

As a film, Vito places emphasis on what is, at least for me, the most important element that imbued Russo with the strength to fight - to the death - for basic human rights. Time and time again throughout the narrative, whatever strife or conflict Vito faced in his life, he did so secure in the knowledge that he had the support and, most importantly, the unconditional love of his family.

Love, ultimately, is what seems to drive Vito to greater and greater heights. Love for his fellow man, love for his family, and in turn, the love he was given by those who would often be the first to turn their backs on those who were Gay.

Not so for Vito.

The love and respect he received from his whole family was unconditional and this, might be the greatest lesson the film can impart on all who see it.

That said, those who need it the most are our youth - they're the future. If new generations, Gay and straight, can be infused with the notion of unconditional love, full acceptance and tolerance for ALL things, can't be too far behind.

See it, embrace it and demand that your Board of Education include it in their media libraries and demand that it be used in the social studies syllabi of all schools. It's one hell of a picture, but it also has the power to effect change for the better.

"Vito" is an HBO documentary that has been on the festival circuits and in limited theatrical release. In Toronto, it is currently playing at the Magic Lantern Carlton Cinemas via Vagrant Films.