'Alfredo's Fire' Sure to Spark Discussion About Religion, Homosexuality and the Deadliness of Intolerance

03/15/2013 12:56 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Thousands will fill St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, the nation-state headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, on March 19 when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, from Argentina, officially becomes Pope Francis.

The crowd will cheer and the cardinals will chant in Latin as the 265th man to become pope since Jesus's disciple Peter died in 67 A.D. The Catholic Church considers Peter, the disciple who betrayed Jesus three times in one night, to be its first pope.

Fifteen years ago, on a cold January morning in 1998, one man knelt on the stone pavement outside St. Peter's Basilica, the late Renaissance church that dominates the square. With the flick of his hand, 39-year-old Alfredo Ormando was suddenly aflame. After two policemen extinguished the flames, Ormando was taken to the hospital with third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body. He died 10 days later.

Ormando's self-immolation was an act of protest against the Catholic Church's condemnation of homosexuality. The gay Sicilian writer was tormented by what is jokingly called "Catholic guilt". His tragic death offered shocking proof that Catholic guilt is not a joke, and that religious intolerance is not only hazardous to the health and well-being of gay people, but potentially even deadly.

Andy Abrahams Wilson, a gifted filmmaker and executive director of San Francisco-based Open Eye Pictures, spent 15 years developing Alfredo's Fire, a 40-minute film documenting Ormando's inner torment and ultimate self-sacrifice.

Wilson, who had studied in Italy during college, first learned about Ormando's self-immolation at the Vatican from an Italian friend. "He told me some gay guy set himself on fire at the Vatican," Wilson recalled. "The church downplayed what happened, said he was psychologically disturbed, had family problems and it wasn't a protest against the church. And it died there." Even the Italian media "passed [Ormando] off as pathetic," said Wilson. "So in his big gesture, his big coming-out, he was as unseen in that final act as he was all his life."

Fire, said Wilson, "was the perfect allegory for the experiences of LGBT people. Fire is at once a a self-annihilation, and harkens back to the Middle Ages when homosexuals were burned at the stake. It's also an expression of passion, of life itself, of rage. Biblically, fire was a communication with God. And it was a coming out, a way to be seen."

Passages from Ormando's mostly unpublished writing, read by the film's voice-over narrator, make painfully clear just how invisible Alfredo felt. "You can't imagine how much I want to scream out in the streets," reads the narrator. "Listen up, people, I am a faggot and I always have been and I am not ashamed. I'd like to shout this to the entire world." He said he wanted to cut "the chains that have bound me to a castrating life."

Enzo Scimonelli, a gay activist in Ormondo's hometown of Palermo, Sicily, says that besides his sexuality, Alfredo's sense of marginalization was compounded by being a southern writer and Catholic. "To be a young southern writer means that you are the most unacknowledged being on earth," he says, "with absolutely no chance to get ahead."

The only one of Ormando's books to be published was a thinly disguised autobiographical novel called Il Fratacchione (the overweight monk). It recounts his two years spent at a monastery attempting to get closer to God and to purify himself of "unclean" desires.

Although he frequently claimed he "felt equal and second to no one," Ormando was clearly tormented. "It isn't true that gay is beautiful," reads the narrator. "On the contrary, it is a continual death on the inside. Either you accept being gay, or you kill yourself." Describing the options for doing just that, Ormando wrote, "I will opt for setting myself on fire. If I have to roast in hell, I might as well prepare myself for it."

Even Ormando's elderly "companion," Gaotano ("Ninni") Mangano, criticized the crowd of gay people we see in the film yelling "Shame! Shame! Shame!" as Pope John Paul II passes by. We see the late pope speaking against homosexuality, which he calls "objectively disordered."

"I get angry with these protesters," Ninni says, "who don't seem to understand. They go against the Church, but it's not about the Church. It's about the word of God, who said, 'Go forth and multiply.' So the church can't ever accept two men or two women. That's it!"

But clearly that's not it, as we see when Ninni watches Verdi's tragic opera "La Traviata" on the television. The man who has maintained his composure while showing the filmmakers Alfredo's room where his clothing, books, sunglasses and even toiletries have been preserved like a shrine, finally dissolves in tears as the soprano pleads, "Love me, Alfredo. Love me as much as I love you."

The Open Eye Pictures' website (openeyepictures.com) says the creators of Alfredo's Fire aren't interested in simply portraying gay people as either victims or victors in a battle over acceptance or rejection, or in religion-bashing. Instead, they "want to explore the nature of the oppression -- but also the responsibility of being different in society." They also want to explore "what are the enduring, life-giving qualities of spiritual connection, and how can its absence cripple." Instead of glorifying Alfredo's action, they say, "we see his story as a touchstone and mirror."

Wilson believes the time is right to widely share Alfredo Ormando's story, as it wasn't shared at the time of his death when the Internet was still catching on. The time also seems right with so much public attention focused on the Catholic Church because of the new pope and the church's seemingly unending string of sexual and other scandals that have come to light. Instead of a theatrical debut, however, Wilson intends the film to serve as an educational tool and catalyst for discussion.

Alfredo's Fire will premiere in late spring or early summer. Meanwhile, Open Eye Pictures has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 to finish and publicize the film. Minimum donations are $1.