Raw Heart

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Frank Ferrante, an overweight guy with deep spiritual wounds and an enormous sense of humor, thought he was signing onto a sort of vegan life fix: 42 days of raw foods, a shot of liquefied wheatgrass every morning, exercise, weigh-ins, holistic medical exams, weekly colonics, daily affirmations. And then all of a sudden he’d be thin and happy.

But transformation isn’t a technical fix. What Frank learned — and what we learn as well as we travel the journey with him in a powerful, intensely honest documentary called May I Be Frank — is that transformation turns you inside out.

The movie began as an experiment. Could a 54-year-old man, undone by life, depressed, longing for love, turn his life around with the help of three enthusiastic twentysomethings — “I sometimes feel like a lion with midsize cubs,” Frank says at one point in consternation — all of whom worked at San Francisco’s Café Gratitude?

Frank had gone into the vegan, raw-foods restaurant one evening on sheer impulse. Having been in alcohol recovery for many years, he was, he said, intrigued by the name of the place, because “gratitude” is one of the core principles of the 12-step program. He wasn’t exactly a typical patron, but for some reason started frequenting the vegan restaurant, and, with his gregarious honesty, managed to hit it off with the wait staff, including Ryland Engelhart, Conor Gaffney and Cary Mosier.

One night, as Ryland explains, the café’s question of the day was: What do you want to do before you die?

Frank answered: “I want to fall in love one more time. I don’t think anyone will love me with this body that I’m wearing because I don’t love myself.”

This launched the project that eventually turned into a documentary. The three young men approached Frank and asked if he wanted to give self-transformation a try, with them not only coaching him but recording everything. They didn’t know what they were doing — as filmmakers, that is. Two of them hadn’t even held a movie camera before. But Frank agreed to the project. The result was hundreds of hours of raw, remarkable footage . . . stored in a cardboard box.

Enter Gregg Marks, transplanted New Yorker, with a background in film and TV, who just happened to be looking for a subject for his first documentary. He met the three young men, viewed the raw footage and decided this was it. He shot another 50 hours of film and assembled it all into May I Be Frank: A Film About Sex, Drugs and Transformation.

What makes it all work, almost magically, is Frank Ferrante. The film floats on his humor and humanity — his willingness to bare everything, body and soul, to the process and to the camera. And this is a film very much about the body. It is grounded in the human body and what we put into it.

Among Frank’s ailments is hepatitis-C, which is a contributor to one of his major symptoms, chronic fatigue. Early in the film, Frank talks about the prescription drug overkill that has become part of his life. For the hepatitis, he’s on a regimen of ribavirin and interferon — “plus a slew of other medications,” he explains, because the meds bring a cornucopia of side effects. “Depression, fatigue, achy joints, irritability, poor sleep, on and on and on. In the morning, I practically take a fistful of pills. I don’t even know what they’re doing. They just tell me to take ’em and I take ’em.

“I really feel terrible about it. I don’t know if I’m sad because of something that’s happening or sad because of the medications.”

Frank is everyman, overmedicated, caught in interlocking cycles of junk consumption, drugs, ill health and despair. This is “normalcy” and there’s no way out, at least not on normalcy’s own terms. There’s only more of the same. The commitment Frank has made with his three young coaches is to break that cycle on every level.

We join Frank at Café Gratitude for his first breakfast, which begins with a shot of juiced wheatgrass, a thick, green substance he quaffs with an unforgettable grimace. We join him as he repeats his daily affirmation with rolled eyeballs: “I am perfect health, ra-a-a-diant beauty, divine energy.” We join him as he talks about his bowel movements — the first one of the day is “like the blitz over London” — with a holistic health practitioner. We join him at his first weigh-in: 287 pounds. We join him as he whacks his head on the wall while still standing on the scale. “That’s almost 300 pounds,” he moans.

But most of all we join Frank as he digs into his past, taking on the wrongs he has done to those he loved most: his brother, his ex-wife and, ultimately, his daughter — whose estrangement is the deepest wound of all. It is in these moments, as the affable Frank breaks down in rending sobs, that May I Be Frank becomes a movie about spiritual transformation, not just healthy eating.

As Frank reconciles with his brother, he remembers a terrible fight they once had and cries out with astonishment: “All my life I’ve had a pain in my back the same place I punched him. I felt bad enough to carry it. I’ve had spasms there all my life.

“The pain you cause other people,” he says, the weight of his words overwhelming him, “can’t be separated from the pain you (bring) on yourself.”

This piercing insight is the center of the movie. Frank did transform himself. He wound up dropping 110 pounds. He wound up winning his daughter back. And most of all, he wound up learning how to love himself — and reach life’s starting place.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.