Both one of the most in-depth and personally driven documentaries to ever cover the topic of gay culture, "Vito" is sure to both inspire and invigorate. The tale follows Vito Russo, a homosexual man from New Jersey who not only lived but thrived through the volatile social and political climate of the 60s and 70s; only to be faced by an even greater enemy with the rise of (and the government’s indifference to) the AIDS virus in the 1980s. Comprised mainly of archival interviews (Russo sadly passed soon after he was diagnosed with the AIDS virus) and home video footage, "Vito" strikes the chord of an era most have rendered long-forgotten; providing a history lesson hidden within a personal statement.
The film opens normally enough: we see Vito as a repressed teen in a small town; happy to have his parents support his lifestyle but anxious to move to a big city where he can meet more people like himself. And indeed, twin trips to San Francisco and New York City provide all he needs: he initiates himself into the gay culture, and even begins organizations that attempt to fight back against the prejudicial laws and mores of the late 1960s. One incredibly moving sequence sees Vito trying and failing to bring together the many disparate gay subcultures at one of the first Pride events - only to accomplish his mission of unity when he brings Bette Midler on stage. It’s one of the many moments that shows this film at its best; working as a personal journey and a time capsule concurrently.
But there’s one other thing that brings another unique wrinkle to the film; something that sets it apart from all similar documentaries (and there are more than a few): Vito loves film. He really, truly loves it. And by the time we get to the point of his life where he began writing the seminal text "The Celluloid Closet," the film shapes itself towards his love and devotion of cinema: for a half hour of its 90 minutes, it stops talking about Vito and becomes a history lesson of homosexuality in cinema. From the silent shorts of the 1910s, to the oblique references in films like "Rebel Without a Cause," to the out-but-not-proud portrayals in 70s films like "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," it covers it all. The film brings Russo’s text (a must-read in its own right) to life; finding an ecstatic truth in his love of movies and in the way he both identified with and fought to change the depictions of the homosexuals therein.
But then, after the triumph of his love of film and the writing that came from it; tragedy strikes. The AIDS virus hits not just the gay culture, not just New York, but also his own personal community. He stood on the front lines; diagnosed very early in the spread of the disease, and fought back against both the public and the government’s apathy. Seeing Russo, withered to the bone, still speaking with all the gusto he had as a 20-year-old man is truly worthy of the word inspirational. He lost his partner, his friends, and his own health; but nothing could ever stop his drive to fight (or his love of entertainment, as regular contributor Lily Tomlin feels the need to indicate.)
Through these tragedies came smaller triumphs - the formation of GLAAD, along with his other gay advocacy groups, is covered in detail - but Russo, alas, would not live to see the full-scale acceptance he so craved. In fact, if I have a complaint about the film, it’s that it feels too much like a biopic - due to the 90 minute runtime, it’s forced to gloss over incredibly important events like the formation of the aforementioned group. Had they focused solely on either Vito’s life or the evolution of the homosexual culture, they may have created something truly singular. But as it is, this is a document whose relevance cannot be ignored: the entirety of the gay pride movement, recorded from one single set of eyes.
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