“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” director Aitch Alberto became emotional talking about the the title characters’ first kiss, which makes for a tense scene in Aristotle’s (Max Pelayo) red pickup truck.
The film, based on the young adult Pen/Faulkner prize-winning novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, tells the eventual love story of two young boys. Aristotle, who goes by Ari, meets Dante (Reese Gonzales) one summer day at the pool. What starts as swimming lessons becomes a fast friendship, which eventually leads to more between the two young Mexican boys from El Paso, Texas.
The friendship faces its first obstacle when Dante and his parents, Sam and Soledad Quintana, move away to Chicago so Sam can take a visiting professorship at the University of Chicago. The Quintanas eventually return to El Paso, and in the period between the move and the joyful reunion between the boys, Dante tells Ari that he wants to marry a boy. Dante also does not shy away from admitting that he has feelings for Ari, even though Ari says he doesn’t kiss boys. One night after they hang out, Dante pushes Ari to try kissing him, but Ari clams up after and tells Dante it doesn’t “work for him.”
“Each of those actors had one take for that scene and that was the last scene of the movie that we shot. I get emotional because it was such an important moment. They were so dropped into their characters. It was such an emotional night,” Alberto told TheWrap.
“I knew they were really raw and really open,” Alberto continued. “The direction specifically for Max, who I think has the heavy lifting to do in that moment, was ‘I need you through your eyes and your body to experience every single emotion — You love this person. You’re repressing these feelings, you don’t want to face this truth.’ It was a challenge. It was so important because all of those things are happening at that point in the story. I didn’t want to give the kiss that moment of connection because it’s not mutual.”
Another major scene involves a detailed juxtaposition that Alberto intentionally created. A serene and religious mural serves as the backdrop for Ari’s confrontation with Daniel (Diego Parra), which becomes tense and potentially violent. Dante and Daniel were caught kissing one night, and the group of boys who discovered them did not react well. Daniel ran away while Dante stood his ground to suffer a beating.
“It’s important for me as a director to be open to what the environment is giving me. In the pool, there’s these three crosses that were there and it’s like, ‘How do we not shy away from them and embrace them?’” Alberto said. “The mural was there as well. I thought, not only was it so representative of what it looks like in El Paso, but it was also such a surreal, gentle imagery that was so beautifully juxtaposed to this potentially really violent moment in the movie, and I never wanted to lose the opportunity to constantly be visualizing love and fear at the same time.”
Alberto accessorized Pelayo’s portrayal of a repressed Aristotle with the use of weather. Right after Dante tells Ari that the Quintanas have to move, Ari takes one of his red Converse and one of Dante’s white ones, ties them together and throws them up on a telephone wire.
“[That scene] did require multiple takes, but not for the reasons that you think. Ari doesn’t know how to use his words, but he knows how to use his actions. He takes action and in that moment, he knows Dante is going away. He had to find a way to memorialize their relationship. That’s why he ties those two shoes together,” Alberto said. “That was a challenging scene to shoot because of the rain and the water. The elements are such a theme within the movie. It was really important for me to show rain, and I didn’t want to compromise that. I wanted to make sure that it felt really thunderous and really scary, especially with what happens after. So it was like ‘How do I embrace the elements to mirror certain emotions that are happening?’ because Ari doesn’t know how to use words.”
While many of the crucial moments in the film originated in Sáenz’s book, the movie also bridges the gap between “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” and its sequel, “Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World,” which arrived in 2021 after Alberto had already penned the screenplay for the movie.
“The wink at the AIDS crisis that was going on at the time wasn’t in the first book. That was one of the things that I included because I didn’t want to forget what the world was like during 1987,” Alberto said. “But that is further explored in the second book, which didn’t exist when I was adapting this one. That’s sort of like a mirror of brilliant minds when it comes to Ben and just like the reality of what the world was for characters like these. That [second] book didn’t influence this experience at all.”
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” arrives in theaters September 8.