John Martoccia is a first-time filmmaker who does not shy away from strong Catholic themes.
With no previous experience, he wrote, produced and directed Vito Bonafacci in, of all places, Utica, N.Y., where he lives. He used some local actors, along with five professional actors.
Just as unlikely, last November, the film was screened in a secular venue, the Big Apple Film Festival in Manhattan. Even more amazing, his film was spotted and picked up by an independent distributor, Cavu Pictures. It premieres in New York City on May 6 at AMC Lowes Village 7.
The film tells the story of everyman Vito Bonafacci, who lives the American success story but must confront his spiritual condition after he dreams of having a heart attack and hearing his mother warn him about the false gods he serves.
Were you always a Catholic?
I was Catholic from birth. My parents were Italian-Americans. We never ate meat on Friday, but never practiced the faith. I went through first Communion and confirmation but never went to Sunday Mass until I was 43. I’m 54 now.
Coming to the faith, I had to learn it from scratch. I didn’t know the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be.
What brought you back to the Church?
I had to hit rock bottom all within a year. I went through a divorce, the death of my father with brain cancer; then my mother became mentally ill and was in and out of the hospital. Everything that was a god for me — the family, money, wife — left me.
On Easter Sunday I was coming back from my brother’s house and was so far removed from the Catholic faith I was thinking of becoming a Jew. I was reading the Old Testament. I believed in God, but I didn’t accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. But that Easter Sunday I read a bumper sticker in front of me, and the next day I picked up the New Testament and started reading the Book of Matthew. At that very moment, I knew Jesus Christ was my redeemer. Prior to that, I couldn’t accept those teachings. I embraced Christ, and my life changed from there on.
I was 40 and made a commitment to God to read Scripture every morning. The first three years I searched into Protestant churches, but was reading Merton and Catholic books, too.
At 43, someone invited me to a memorial Mass. I started crying and knew this was where I belong. I called the priest and said, “I want to go to confession.” I could not stop crying in that confessional. Since that day, I am a daily communicant, and I go to confession twice a week. That’s the power of that sacrament.
Did you draw on your experience for the film?
In the film, there’s a lot of me, what I learned. I have a deep devotion to our Blessed Mother. That took a while: to get to her. I’m consecrated to our Blessed Mother. Her Yes to God made our salvation possible. I pray the complete Rosary every day.
Why did you decide to make the film?
God’s will be done — that’s how I try to live my life. I started going with my oldest boy to movies at the local museum and college film symposiums. During this time, I started praying daily in front of the Blessed Sacrament that the media would be used to bring people closer to God, not realizing I would be part of the media that would do this.
Then I thought, I could write a screenplay, do a film. I felt God was calling me. But I resisted. I said, This is a complicated matter. I don’t want to do this; I can’t do this. The Lord said, “It is my will.” The Lord kept saying, “Do it, John.” If I said No to Vito, it would be saying No to God, and I can’t do that to God.
Without a background in filmmaking, how did you begin?
I knew nothing about the screenplay format. But I started from the premise: Create a fictional character that is going to evangelize and instruct people in the faith. I created this character Vito, then the opening monologue: my understanding of the human condition.
Once I got that opening monologue, the rest pretty much flowed. Then I developed Vito. I was calling upon the Holy Spirit and praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament. So the Holy Spirit did it from A-Z.
What goals prompted you?
I wanted to catechize. I see a crisis in our Church with catechesis and poorly instructed Catholics. I didn’t want to be preachy, but wanted to weave this catechesis in a fictional story. And this, also, for Protestants who watch this film.
Vito is a guy most people can empathize with. He is a decent, not an evil, guy: a guy going through life like many Catholics today are. Empathy with his character can penetrate the depths of their souls, and they can come closer to the truth.
That’s the point of the mother’s monologue talking to the camera. I wanted the people to become Vito, to empathize with Vito, who has the typical American dream — nice house, nice family, wife, kids, money — from the secular realm, not spiritual realm.
What spiritual message did you want to bring out strongly?
I wanted to make people think about aspects of life they may not normally think about in this hustle-bustle world: We’re all going to be accountable to God someday, and there are truths God manifests to the world through his Church.
I wanted to bring out a deeper understanding of our Blessed Mother, the Rosary, the sacrament of reconciliation, the Eucharist, to make people aware of the truth of God’s holy and apostolic Church and to make people think about heaven and hell, and there is a day of judgment, but also God’s mercy reigns. It’s all about God’s mercy. Without his mercy, we’re all unworthy.
God is infinite mercy. God’s greatest attribute is his mercy, and he is there to welcome us if we have sincere repentance. The film shows God is a loving, merciful God.
It’s providential the film opens days before Divine Mercy Sunday. Making it, were you conscious of its Divine Mercy message?
Mercy is the source of this film. I pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day. I pray to St. Faustina every day at Mass. I read her Diary.
I can say I had another conversion in church on Divine Mercy Sunday. I was doing my ministries, my devotional life, but still could not forgive myself. Then, on Divine Mercy Sunday, the priest was walking around the church with the Blessed Sacrament praying for healing. He prayed: “Maybe you can’t forgive others, and after, maybe you can’t forgive yourself.” I was never cognizant of the fact I never forgave myself. I could forgive everybody, but not myself. I was not cognizant of this until the monstrance was in front of me.
Finally, I forgave myself, shed tears and had a healing. That’s when I started to grow spiritually.
The source of everything is mercy. Remember the prayer in the Mass: “In love you created us, in justice you condemned us, in mercy you redeemed us.” That, hopefully, is the focal point in my ministry and my life. Once you understand God’s mercy, you have a zeal to convey it to the world and to bring souls into God’s love. I didn’t understand until I had that healing.
Were you surprised about being picked up for theatrical distribution?
To have a small independent filmmaker, unheard of in the business, open a movie in Manhattan — it’s a tremendous gift from God.
What are your hopes for the film?
That it touches, converts and sanctifies as many souls as possible, interests them in the Catholic faith; makes Catholics stronger Catholics. I think the movie is a powerful tool to get people to have greater love and respect for the Church and the Blessed Mother.
I want the Holy Spirit to move the project to sanctify souls and bring as many people as possible into the heavenly Kingdom.
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.