“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” director Aitch Alberto considers her film adaptation timely yet “long overdue” for several reasons.
Aitch, who hails from Cuba and identifies as transgender, penned the screen adaptation of the novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz after spending four days in El Paso with the author, who gave her his blessing to adapt the story. She spoke with TheWrap about intentional directorial choices for specific scenes, her take on the relationship between Aristotle (Max Pelayo) and his father Jaime (Eugenio Derbez) and the broader implications of the film in a growing canon of LGBTQ+ and Latin American stories released during a tense political time.
How is this film uniquely Mexican-American?
Alberto: This film is uniquely Latino. I’m not Mexican American. I’m Cuban, so I really tried to focus on the similarities that we have as a culture because there are also a lot of differences. That was what was most important because I think my community is in such a need of unification that I didn’t want to other the experience any more than it’s already been in cinema. I focus on what’s similar and that is always a foundation of love. That was the guiding light. That was, “‘How do I root this in love at any given moment, even when it feels scary?”
Why are these stories so important right now, in the current political climate we’re having with both immigrants and LGBTQ people targeted?
I think we’ve always been targeted. It’s timely that this is existing now, but we’re long overdue with it. I think what’s happening is, storytellers like myself are able to tell our own stories about our own experiences. That’s going to make a huge difference, to have people experience themselves and have a reflection of themselves onscreen. Hopefully that empowers people to use their voice, which is such an important theme of what this movie is. We can’t stay silent. We need to join forces and use our voices as a unit, and I hope that this is the beginning of an invitation to stand up to the prosecution, or the othering of, when it’s solely rooted in identity.
What’s also important about this film is that it’s about choosing love over fear. Fear is rooted in the unknown, which is often what happens when people are targeting us. They fear us because they don’t know us. Hopefully they see that this story is a celebration of that and in turn a mirror to a version of themselves that may look different, but is really quite the same.
How do the characters carry out this message?
Both of these characters have the option of choosing love or fear, and we see them each choose the other at different times in the story. At the end of the day, it goes back to “How do we choose love?” That’s the ultimate choice that we could make to make us unstoppable because when you’re so rooted in love and accepting yourself and loving yourself and recognizing the love around you, it truly makes you unstoppable. The story as a whole is a true exploration of that. Fear is also rooted in shame, which is often what holds us back from truly owning who we are.
Ari’s father immediately approves of Ari’s love for Dante. Why is it so important that we see an example of that in the film versus a disapproving father?
I think we’ve redundantly seen, especially when it comes to people of color, especially when it comes to Latino fathers in film, the latter, the disapproving dad. So it’s so important for me as a storyteller to give people a different option, to give people of color a different option because media is so powerful and it influences the way we think. When you add the layer that Eugenio Derbez, this iconic Mexican actor who has been in so many Latin homes for so long, is the person that is changing that narrative and redefining the narrative through his words and his actions, I think it’s such a powerful moment in a real way that people are like, “Wait, if he is approving, then maybe it’s a teaching moment” to people who admire him and who haven’t seen that as an option to how they could love their kids.
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” arrives in theaters September 8. Check out the trailer below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.