By Antonina Zielinska
A love and passion discovered thanks to an NYU film class landed one Brazilian-American couple on hammocks in the Amazon rainforest.
Vincent and Cristina Biscione met when they were both doing post-graduate work at New York University. Cristina was an exchange student with a bachelor’s in journalism. Vincent, a Xaverian H.S., Bay Ridge, alumnus from St. Bernard parish, Mill Basin, was studying film in the program for continuing education. As their affection for each other grew stronger, so did their desire to make a movie with a higher purpose.
As the couple prepared for a trip to Brazil, Vincent’s mother gave him a copy of the book “Martyr of the Amazon.” The biography recounts the life of Sister Dorothy Stang, S.N.D., an American-born nun who became a naturalized citizen of Brazil and eventually was murdered while serving poor people in the Amazon.
Vincent fell in love with her story and shared it with Cristina. They decided to make a bio-pic movie based on the book and her life. And so “The Hope of the Amazon” was conceived.
“It’s not really that we found the story; the story found us,” Cristina said. “This fell into our laps, and we said this looks like us.”
“We couldn’t tell Sister Dorothy’s story, without talking to the people she knew and seeing the places she worked in,” Vincent said.
Since they were already going to Brazil, they decided to go to the Amazon.
“Even if you are Brazilian, it’s not a place you want to be in,” Cristina said. “It’s scary.”
Despite their families’ reservations, they decided together that this is something they wanted to do.
“I love this guy,” Cristina said. “We want to be together. I wanted to be part of this story. I trusted him.”
And so they made their way to Balem, Brazil, where some of Cristina’s family lived.
From there, they embarked on a 16-hour bus ride, which started on a coach bus that carried more people than seats. Next was a van that had to dodge huge potholes in the rain and maneuver down a road that was severely washed away from the latest flood. Finally, they made their way down a bumpy dirt road on an rackety old pickup truck that had no working meters.
“It all comes down to faith,” Vincent said. “God gave us the opportunity to tell this story. If we stay on the path, God will give us the opportunity.”
Their faith was rewarded. Upon arriving in Anapu, they found out that they were just in time to join an annual pilgrimage in honor of Sister Dorothy. About 200 people from St. Lucia parish walked 34 miles for four days to a community center built by Sister Dorothy.
“Everyone was so welcoming,” Cristina said. “These people – they are tough. They are so loving.”
Because Cristina and Vincent did not know they were about to embark on a pilgrimage, they were not prepared. They did not know how to tie a knot to keep their hammock secured between trees for the night to protect themselves from the elements and the Amazonian bugs. So one of the pilgrims, Carlos, climbed a tree to help them out. From then on, he helped them find the best place to hang their hammocks, where they would be best protected from the rain.
In the evening, Carlos helped the couple find their way around the nightly food line. Vincent and Cristina didn’t have plates or utensils, so one of the nuns secured them a plate, cup and spoon. Thanks to her efforts, they did not have to eat with their hands.
The couple admitted that they were out of their depths. Cristina is from Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. She did not spend much time in the outdoors. Vincent, on the other hand, is a Boy Scout who loves to hike, but he does not speak Portuguese and had never been to Brazil before.
Despite the many dangers of entering the Amazon, a lawless land ruled by corrupt officials, Cristina said she felt reassured.
“[Vincent] says he is a Boy Scout, but he is a warrior,” Cristina said. “So if anything were to happen, I knew he would protect me.”
Vincent said he relied on prayer to give him strength. He bought a pendent with the Sacred Heart of Jesus on one side and Our Lady of Nazareth, the patroness of the Amazon, on the other. He prayed the Rosary every night.
Nonetheless, the couple dealt with cultural challenges because they were unfamiliar with the customs of the people in the Amazon.
When they came across a cow carcass with guts spilling out, they thought a truck hit it. They soon found out it was the leftovers from their dinner the night before. A family donated a cow for the pilgrims every night.
This generosity is simply part of the culture, in large part shaped by Sister Dorothy.
In the early 1970s poor people from the cities moved to the Amazon as a result of a public campaign: No Man’s Land for Man with No Land. Sister Dorothy joined them.
A missioner with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and a native of Ohio, she started mission work in the Amazon after working in Arizona. She brought a different approach of spreading the Gospel than that of the original Brazilian missioners.
Living the Gospel
She showed the people the Gospel by living it. She organized the community and showed them how to live off the land in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
“People saw through her that the Church is good,” Cristina said.
Vincent and Cristina said they would not have to embellish much for the film because Sister Dorothy’s life was already action-packed. In one day, for example, the nun was shot at in a church, and yet she helped to deliver a baby that night.
The young couple experienced a small part of the violence present in the wilderness. On the last night of their pilgrimage, the pilgrims were awoken by six gun shots fired upon a plaque honoring Sister Dorothy. It was a message from the loggers and ranchers in the area, letting the pilgrims know they were being watched. The shots served as a reminder that fear and intimidation were the primary tactics of those who wanted the forest for their personal gain.
Sister Dorothy dedicated her life to protect the forest from those who would cut it down and replace it with pasture land in an environment where it cannot be sustained, in effect turning the lungs of the planet into a wasteland. It was a fight she ultimately gave her life for when she was gunned down in 2005.
Vincent and Cristina said Sister Dorothy left an immeasurable legacy. She left an organized group of people in the outskirts of the Amazon as the only defense between loggers and the largest and most bio-diverse rainforest in the world. When she organized schools for children in the area, some of them were able to continue their studies in universities. Some of those children came back as lawyers, religious and other professionals to help their beloved rainforest.
Among the biggest problem in the forest are loggers presenting fake ownership documents to illiterate, but legal, residents of the rainforest. When educated professionals return to the rainforest, they are better able to contest the loggers’ claims.
“Someone said: ‘Sister Dorothy is a seed. We are not burying her; we are planting her,’” Vincent recalled. “I want to be a leaf of her branch.”
He said he hopes the movie can be a good fruit resulting from Sister Dorothy’s work, inspiring viewers to be more conscious of the environment and think of ways to make a real difference, even if it’s just in their own backyard.
Having gained a better appreciation of the rainforest and its inhabitants, the young couple made their way back to Brasilia where Vincent asked Cristina to be his wife. She agreed, and they were married in 2012.
Having written dozens of drafts of their movie and having brought new life into the world in the form of their baby son, the couple is now looking for a financial backer for their movie. They want it to be a Hollywood-quality movie so that it can inspire a large audience.
Although they admit that the process of movie-making can be difficult at times, they have faith. They believe God will help them bring this movie to fruition if they are patient and follow the examples of those who spend decades working on their masterpieces.
“We vowed to each other, and we vowed to this movie,” Vincent said. “I don’t think I would want my life to be any different.”