"Baseball's Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories" is a low budget movie on the life of baseball icon Roberto Clemente. The film was a labor of love made by volunteers on a shoestring budget. Two-time Olympian Jamie Nieto plays the role of Clemente, and Bravo's Project Runway Winner Marilinda Rivera portrays his wife Vera Clemente. The indie-film got a bigger blessing than Sundance, Variety, or the Hollywood Reporter when Pope Francis contacted director Richard Rossi about the film's portrayal of Clemente's humanitarian sacrifice. Maria Ramirez obtained an exclusive interview with Rossi for Catholic News Wire to reflect on the film's impact, felt all the way to the Vatican and to ask about Rossi's new upcoming film on religion, "Canaan Land," a controversial exploration of the false prophets of our day.
CNW: When the letters arrived from Pope Francis, what was your reaction?
RR: I didn't know what it was at first. It had an official seal on it, and I honestly didn't know what they were. Pope Francis letters to me were always sent through the Vatican emissary office called the Apostolic Nunciature to the United States in Washington, D.C. My thought after reading the first letter was, "Wow, a letter from the Pope. That doesn't happen every day."
CNW: You've shared some of the correspondence with the media, I've seen coverage on CBS News, in the LA Times, Washington Post, and various other media. Other letters you've elected to keep private as instructed by the Church. Some of the late night comics have made jokes about the Pope canonizing Clemente because of your film and that you and Pope Francis are "out of left field," "off-base," and other baseball jokes. What's been your latest thoughts to the effort to make Clemente a saint because of the film?
RR: Well, we had to make the pitch right? The baseball puns and groaners are endless. My personal opinion is that Roberto Clemente is already a saint in the best definition of the word. I think he is more worthy of that honor than many who the Catholic church have previously given it to. He led a Christlike life in the sense that he cared and laid down his life for others, dying in a mission of mercy to earthquake victims. By the grace of God, and the actions of his life, he is a saint to me already. I'm not saying he's perfect, sinless, or anything like that. He showed us how to live with concern for others, for disadvantaged children. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. The Catholic Church canonizing Clemente does not make him a saint at that moment in the future, they'll be affirming what he already was long before that. I'll be thrilled if the canonization process we've had a small part in starting through the film comes to full recognition of what he did.
CNW: It was more than a small part, if I may say so. What is your own background relative to Catholicism and your views on the current Pope?
RR: I was born and raised Catholic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I grew up attending Pirates games and Clemente was my boyhood hero. There's things I like about the Catholic Church and other things I don't. I like the history and the art. I was in Italy when my first feature film "Sister Aimee" was up for an award in Milan. I toured the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel and I think they are examples of the importance the Church has played relative to art history. Although my evangelical friends are loathe to admit it, the Catholic Church was instrumental in collecting the writings to form the canon and put the Bible together. Some of my youthful experience was in the fundamentalist circles where they tend to not understand the Catholic Church's role in formulating orthodox doctrine through the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. I tried to explain that to them but they weren't too astute to understand that. The Catholic Church is an important part in my own journey and history. My wife and I've participated in a couples group called Marriage Encounter which is a ministry of the Catholic Church. My wife and I enjoy Mass. My spiritual journey has led me to explore many other churches and books, I've never limited my mind and growth to any one denomination. I've spent as much time exploring other groups outside of Catholicism as I have inside it. There are not too many denominations or religious organizations I haven't exposed myself to. My bottom line conclusion is it's an inside job.
CNW: What do you mean by an inside job?
RR: Jesus said 'The kingdom of God is within you.' What is in your heart? Listen to the Holy Spirit, the still, small voice inside you. It's not commandments written on stone, the law of God is written in your heart. When we give away our minds and power to an external religious leader to tell us what God is saying, we get into trouble. I've seen problems when people do that in Catholicism, Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, fundamentalism, and all the other "Isms."
CNW: What don't you like about Catholicism?
RR: There's quite a bit of sexual pathology in both the Catholic and Protestant churches. The molestation of children by priests, and the pedophilia in fundamentalism, one recent case in the news is the Duggars, seems to be prevalent in rigid religion. Several religious leaders I knew in the fundamentalist Protestant world molested one of their kids, their own kids, and some other kids in the church. I know people who are very close to me who were abused in such a way by religious leaders. That's the worse thing about it. Some of the old school nuns were abusive, I experienced abuse in Catholic school as a kid. But I also know nuns that are sweet, wonderful, prayerful supporters of me and the film. I've had friends who are priests and bishops who are wonderful men. I've enjoyed spiritual retreats with them. The nun who was the real life inspiration for the scene with Clemente was such a person.
CNW: Is it true that the scene you're referring to in your film "Baseball's
Last Hero" with the nun and Clemente, the one that got Vatican
attention, was added later and wasn't in the original script?
RR: Yes, I wrote it one night at the apartment of some
friends of ours, Paciano and Molly. They were hosting the Marriage
Encounter group on a Friday night. My wife and I finished our sharing
assignment and had a few quiet moments and the scene came to me. I
wrote it down. Jamie Nieto who played Clemente and Laura Alexandra
Ramos who played the nun did a fantastic job with a lot of dialogue on
CNW: Is it true that Archbishop Jose Gomez, of the Los Angeles Diocese contacted you to support your film and efforts? If so, he is probably the most influential Latin American clergyman in America?
RR: Yes, he's very gracious and wrote to tell me he's sharing our film with Catholic Athlete's for Christ and he's supportive of the cause.
CNW: What's your feeling about Pope Francis?
RR: I like him. At least what I've seen. I don't really know him obviously other than the correspondence. I like how he is willing to identify with the oppressed and not be so married to the wealth of Rome. As a Latin American, he has the ethnicity to appreciate Roberto Clemente's culture. He's been criticized for reaching out to people the church loves to hate, like homosexuals, Muslims, the poor. My understanding of Jesus is that He was criticized for being a friend of the fallen, a friend of sinners and outcasts. The Pharisees accused Him of being a drunkard and a wine-bibber. I like the Pope's recent statements that salvation is a free gift of grace, which reflects my views and what I read in the second chapter of Ephesians.
CNW: Where can we see the film?
RR: It's available now for rent or DVD purchase at Amazon, Truli, and IAMflix. Just search for "Baseball's Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories."
CNW: What is your next feature film?
I'm in pre-production on a feature dramatic film entitled "Canaan Land." It's a love story about a con artist preacher who is a televangelist. He is Elmer Gantryish, and promises healing in exchange for a donation. He falls for a female faith healing evangelist who is the real deal, a true believer. The film shows the difference between a toxic false faith that hurts people and a healthy true faith that helps and heals people.
CNW: How can we support the effort?
All gifts to the project are tax-deductible and can be done through our Go Fund Me campaign at http://www.gofundme.com/canaanland