Saturday, 28 March 2009

Review: ‘Pedro’
Life and death of AIDS activist

MAR. 26, 2009

"Long after the last episode of “The Real World San Francisco” was aired, the life of castmember Pedro Zamora comes to life once again, when MTV’s biopic “Pedro” premieres Wednesday, April 1.

The first-ever HIV-positive character on TV, Zamora captured the hearts of millions of viewers during his stint in the “Real World” house. He received international acclaim for putting a face to the disease; then-President Bill Clinton publicly praised Zamora with personalizing and epidemic.

But regardless of his time on MTV, Zamora’s life was an extraordinary journey: born in Cuba, he was among 125,000 refugees who fled the country in the “Mariel Boat Lift” of 1980, settling with his family in Miami. His mother died of cancer when he was 14; when he was 17, he tested positive for HIV, and he went on to become one of the world’s foremost HIV/AIDS activists.

“Pedro” was produced by Bunim-Murray Productions, the company behind “The Real World” itself; the film’s producers were the same people who worked on Zamora’s season of the MTV show. While the story could have been told more eloquently if it were filmed by a “real” movie studio—Bunim-Murray is renowned for making reality shows on a very low budget—it is still a loving tribute to the person who shared the final days of his life, as well as Pedro’s family and friends who also sacrificed themselves in many ways to help him on his mission.

The film “Pedro” pays tribute to Zamora’s life before, during and after his time on “The Real World,” although it focuses primarily on the slow deterioration of his health, while jumping to various life memories as flashbacks. Zamora is played by freshman actor (and Miami resident) Alex Loynaz, who gives a respectful portrayal of the title character. Like Zamora, Loynaz is earnest and energetic, and his charisma garners great sympathy as his life winds to an end. His performance, ironically, grows stronger as Zamora’s life deteriorates and he loses the ability to speak; but performing without saying lines is no small feat.

The real star of the film is Justina Machado, who plays Pedro’s sister Mily—both because of her own acting chops (formerly of “Six Feet Under” and “ER”), and because the story between Pedro and Mily is very touching. Mily became her younger brother’s parental figure when their mother died, and she was with him in all the way through his final days living at home in Miami. As the true actor in the cast, Machado has space to spread her wings and she turns in a heart-wrenching performance. Although the end of the story is widely known, it is still a very sad conclusion.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Watching a film with actors portraying actual people can be a distracting experience, as you compare the actor to the real thing; this is compounded by the fact that some of the people in “Pedro” are well known as themselves, having appeared in a reality show. In the film, these portrayals often end up as caricatures of the “characters” created for the MTV series. Real-life Judd Winnick is smart, with a dry wit; performed by Hale Appleman, Judd is a bit of a dullard. Real-life Rachel Campos-Duffy is funny and charming, but the movie version of Rachel (played by Miami resident Karolin Luna) is just a ditz.

Matt Barr, whose credits include a recurring role on “One Tree Hill,” actually turns in a sexy and dynamic performance as Puck, the infamous house antagonist, but real-life Puck transcends being just a cute guy with nice abs who picks his nose. Puck, in person, has a way of sucking the air out of the room. Capturing his essence on screen is no small feat—never mind grasping the bizarre power play that Puck fought with Pedro, as they battled for camera time in the “Real World” house. Their relationship is never fleshed out in the film; it looks like they just looked like they got into a fight, Puck got kicked out, Pedro wins. It went much deeper.

Fortunately, the “Real World” scenes are kept to a minimum and the bulk of the movie is spent on the rest of Zamora’s life, which is far more interesting than a silly reality show. As the saying goes, the book is always better than the movie; and Zamora’s real story is inherently more complex and interesting than what can be smashed into 90 minutes of low-budget filmmaking. But just as Zamora accomplished 15 years ago when he made history on “The Real World,” teaching a generation about what it means to be HIV-positive, the movie “Pedro” will teach this generation what it meant to be Pedro Zamora."

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