“I never want the movie to be niche,” Aitch Alberto tells me at Raizado Fest. Alberto is the writer and director of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which screened at the festival and is hitting theaters Friday, September 8. It is a powerful coming-of-age story about two Chicanos growing up in El Paso in the 1980s. Earlier, I heard her tell a fan the film has “queer themes” and she tells me, “The story is about how love transcends despite gender, despite race, despite any of the limitations that I think society often puts on us.”
It’s based on a beloved book of the same name by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. “I read the book in 2014, and I had a version of the script in 2016. I reached out to the author and said, ‘I did this thing and I want to come and meet you.’ So I flew to El Paso and I spent four days with him,” Alberto shares. “At the end of that trip, he said, ‘These boys were mine, and now I give them to you.’ And he’s been my first yes and my biggest supporter. I honestly don’t think I would be still involved in the project if he didn’t have my back the way he did. I’m incredibly grateful.”
It should have been an easy journey from there – the book Aristotle and Dante was a New York Times Best Seller, won a bunch of literary prizes, and has been translated into more than 30 languages. Still, as Alberto recounts trying to get the film made, the story wasn’t a quick sell: “It was sort of dismissed because it’s a story about these two brown boys. And there were so many reasons why Hollywood wouldn’t make this, wouldn’t think this was a viable source material.”
“I joke that if the Latinx mafia hadn’t shown up, the movie would have never gotten made,” she says. But show up they did. Eugenio Derbez and Eva Longoria both play parents while Isabella Gomez is a classmate of Ari’s. Lin-Manuel Miranda recorded the audiobook prior to Alberto getting the rights, and so of course, “I wanted to get him involved in some capacity. We tried the traditional route – that didn’t work. And then I sent him a tweet. And 20 minutes later, he replied. Twenty-three months after that he was in LA agreeing to be a producer.”
Latinx star power coalesced to make the film a reality, under Alberto’s lead. Which makes sense, because as she tells it, Alberto set out to “give the Latino community an option to see things a little differently than we have before… to help redefine masculinity specifically for the Latinx community.”
To do that, Alberto needed to match the tone and vibe of the book, which she called “lyrical” in our post-screening conversation at Raizado. “It was about letting the quiet moments, as much as possible, do a lot of talking,” she shared, and there certainly are plenty of scenes of contemplation in Aristotle and Dante. One where Ari drives off into the El Paso desert alone to sit and think is particularly powerful. Here’s a young man with many of the traditional markers of masculinity – a cool car, chiseled cheekbones, he’s even eating a hamburger. And he doesn’t say anything but the storm within is as clearly visible as the sky above.
You see, Aristotle and Dante both is and is not the typical coming-of-age story. Our two young protagonists bump up against the ugly parts of the world, but they are not defined by them. They are carving their own way, despite the difficulties, powered in part by loving families who cherish them for who they are. Reminder: hate crimes are up, not just a thing of border communities in the 1980s.
If you’re looking for a traditional coming-out narrative, Aristotle and Dante isn’t it. “Ari never proclaims a sexuality. He falls in love with Dante as a human being who just happens to be a boy,” says Alberto. As such, the film hits different beats, acknowledging that LGBTQ people of color face violence but not falling into trauma porn or other reductive narratives.
As Alberto says, “My identity informs my perspective in the world, but it isn’t my whole story” – and that outlook is reflected in this beautiful, meditative film about two boys who do discover the secrets of the universe. They discover how to love themselves and others, even when the world says they should not – and what’s more meaningful than that?
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe opens nationwide Friday, September 8.