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A Journey of Healing

For John and Brenda Fareri the grief of losing their daughter fueled their altruistic passion.



In the summer of 1995, a silver-haired bat sank its tiny, needle-like teeth into Maria Fareri, a thirteen-year-old who lived in a stone mansion on Lower Cross Road. Because the wound was probably no bigger than a pinprick and might have been inflicted while Maria slept, it went fatally unnoticed. “On average, two people a year in the United States die of rabies,” Maria’s father, the real estate developer John Fareri, said over lunch recently in Greenwich. “So the odds are one in 150 million.”

Maria Fareri was a slender, beautiful child with a great frizz of dark brown hair; she was also an exceptional student who had never received a mark less perfect than A minus. As she launched into the eighth grade at Central Middle School, Maria was determined to ace the Connecticut Mastery Tests—so determined that, as the tests approached, she tried to conceal from her parents the fact that she was feeling a little strange. But Brenda Fareri, a former nurse, noticed anyway and quickly grew uneasy. Before sunup on September 22, 1995, Brenda drove her daughter to Greenwich Hospital to be examined. Maria’s symptoms—aches, spasms, numbness in one arm—were somewhat flulike, certainly too commonplace to suggest a medical catastrophe. Unfortunately it was already too late; the rabies virus had invaded Maria’s central nervous system. She died on October 3, 1995 at Westchester County Medical Center—Connecticut’s first rabies death in sixty-three years.

Intimate and Emotional

A random tragedy with no particular moral; that might have been the end of the story, so far as the public was concerned. But there was an inspiring aftermath. And that is why, last October, a film production crew rolled into Greenwich, along with a cast headed by David Duchovny (Californication and The X-Files), Hope Davis (About Schmidt) and Timothy Hutton (Leverage and Ordinary People). The cast and crew spent five weeks filming Louder Than Words (working title as of press time), the story of the Fareris’ struggle to build a state-of-the-art children’s hospital in Maria’s memory. That might seem like thin material by Hollywood standards (and surely would be, by big studio standards). There are no car chases, no explosions, no jokes, no sex, not even a villain, unless you count the cold, hard bureaucracy that threatened to derail the Fareris’ dream. Indeed the producer, Anthony Mastromauro, worried at first that the subject matter, if not handled just so, might curdle into a TV-style medical melodrama.

But anyone who reads the script (by Carroll Cartwright) and watches a bit of the filming (directed by Anthony Fabian), begins to see what Duchnovny, Davis and Hutton saw in Louder Than Words: an intimate human drama full of pain and suffering, but with an improbably satisfying resolution. These qualities make it very much an actor’s movie. “It’s a quiet, emotional piece about a family reacting to a tragedy and trying to stay together,” says Duchovny, who plays a taciturn John Fareri. “It’s not a story you could tell in a huge Hollywood movie,” adds Hope Davis, who plays a talkative Brenda. “But it is an amazing story, how these grieving people turn a tragedy into something remarkable.”

“There’s definitely a thread of passion that runs through this project,” John Fareri says. “I don’t think the actors did it for the money, certainly. They could make a lot more doing other things.”

The Fareris themselves thought up the idea of trying to capture their story on film, though they were far from certain it was a good idea. On the one hand, John especially is a private person, not given to talking publicly about personal matters, let alone painful ones. “I like to stay under the radar,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to stay under the radar with a movie.” On the other hand, he knew that a film could raise the profile of the Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, which is indeed the state-of-the-art, family-friendly hospital the Fareris had envisioned. (Now there are plans afoot to build an adjoining children’s living science center to educate children about health.)

A film would also be a way of extending Maria’s spirit to a potentially broad audience. At her wake, a teacher told the Fareris that, for a class project, the students were asked to express their greatest wish. Maria’s was “for the health and well-being of all the children of the world.” That had been less than a month before she died. John mentioned the movie idea to Greenwich realtor Tamar Lurie, who passed it to her son Rod, a filmmaker best known for the political thriller The Contender, starring Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman.

Lurie in turn discussed the idea with Mastromauro, an independent producer who favors movies with the tone and texture of real life, such as About a Boy and Juno: “If I could make movies like that, and no special-effects blockbusters, I’d be very, very happy.”

Behind the Sadness

One carefully worked-over script later, and, well, our scene dissolves to a house off Round Hill Road that stands in for the (now former) Fareri chateau on Lower Cross. Maria has died, and the family—Brenda, John and Maria’s three step-siblings, Julie, Stephanie and Michael (triplets from Brenda’s first marriage)—all are drifting apart from one another, each one an island. John is the remotest of all. Duchovny plays him as self-contained and intense. “He’s heartbroken, he’s lost his child, but he’s not expressing it,” Duchovny said. “He’s not in therapy; he’s not in survivor groups. He pours it all into the building of this hospital.” Duchovny’s John is a man of so few words, in fact, that Hope Davis would greet him on the set by joking, “Did you memorize your line today?”

Brenda is locked outside of John’s grief, and the tension between them—and the ignored Fareri kids—constitutes the dramatic core of Louder Than Words. Will they stay together, or continue drifting apart until there is nothing left of them? Anthony Fabian calls “action,” and Hope Davis lifts a platter of fruit and cheese and carries it to the dining room. Brenda Fareri is watching. At first, Davis had worried about Brenda’s presence on the set: “The story is so painful as it is,” she said. “Then to re-experience it in this dramatic mode—but she was lovely. She made it so easy. She was so warm and open with her feelings and experiences that it seemed to me the tragedy opened her up in some ways, rather than closed her off.”

Brenda herself quickly outgrew the discomfort of watching an actor dramatize her life, mainly because she understands that Davis’s Brenda is really a created character, not an impersonation. Davis reported that the real Brenda referred to the movie Brenda in the third person, as if she were someone else entirely. But there were days when the two Brendas were not so separable—days on which Maria succumbs to the virus in the hospital. None of the Fareris appeared on the set for those scenes. “Those would have been just too painful,” Brenda says. “It would have been like reliving them.” As it was, the talented young actor who plays Maria, Olivia Steele-Falconer, embodied the original to an unsettling degree, especially after she teased her naturally straight hair into a thick, wavy mane. “It was like Maria was alive—but she wasn’t,” Brenda remarks. “All of us looked at each other and we just started to cry.”

But they’re not shooting Olivia-Maria scenes now. “This is where John’s just coming out of his shell,” Brenda whispers as Duchovny, in the dining room, goes over some architectural renderings of the hospital. “John had been very ‘not there,’ though he was there physically. He was just shell-shocked. But once he started working on the hospital, that’s when he really started to heal.” In the manner of grieving men, though, John went about the hospital business as business—huddled up with Timothy Hutton’s character, a visionary health-care executive named Bruce Komiske. Brenda is frozen out of the process. In the movie, her breaking point comes when she says to John, “You just want to do this by yourself—don’t you?” and he replies, cluelessly, “What are you talking about? I’ve got Bruce.” At that, the movie Brenda does something that the real Brenda would never, ever do—smashes a plate on the floor. “Maybe I’d throw a dishrag,” she offers. But such are the necessities of drama. Still, it’s fair to say that the scene expresses an emotional truth: Brenda had metaphorically smashed plates a hundred times over.

After Brenda breaks through to John, the movie’s emphasis switches to their seemingly impossible goal of getting the children’s hospital built. “I thought it was a matter of getting some money and building a building,” John says with a short laugh. “That’s the easy part. It’s the bureaucracy that’s so difficult, the politics. If I knew then what I know now, I never would have tried it.” In the film as in life, John’s naïveté works in his favor. Fundraisers tell him it’ll be impossible to raise adequate funds; politicians tell him he’s messing with their colleagues’ competing projects; and, most distressing, hospital officials tell him that “pediatrics is the bottom of the food chain”—that neurosurgery and transplants attract the big dollars. Duchovny’s John listens, without expression, to a roundtable of experts enumerating the roadblocks. When they are done, John says, “Finished?” as though he’d repelled their bullets with a shrug. Clearly, he’s a man used to hearing “no” and blowing right through it.

A Dream Comes True

The Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital opened in 2004, and today serves 20,000 children a year. Far from the cramped, institutional place where Maria spent her final days, it is castle-like on the outside and whimsically hotel-like on the inside, with a walk-in aquarium, a children’s library, playrooms and computer rooms, and walls decorated by big-name artists such as Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Edward Ruscha. As John explains while leading a reporter past a dollhouse exhibit, “A hospital doesn’t have to be a scary place.” Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital is also home to some of the best pediatrics doctors in the world, from oncologists to open-heart surgeons to neurosurgeons. “We call the hospital the nicest place you’d never want to have to go to,” says John.

The hospital was a triumph of the human will; John sees the making of a movie in similar terms. “It takes more time and costs more money than you think it will,” he says. “And who knows if it’ll be successful? Who knows if it will even make it to the screen?” Mastromauro confirms that the path of an independent film is never certain. His hope is to premiere Louder Than Words this September at the influential Toronto International Film Festival, and from there secure a distribution deal. That would put the movie in theaters for all to see. Assuming this happens, Maria’s spirit will have prevailed once again, reminding audiences that even out of great sorrow can come a great good. “There’s always something you can do, no matter how bad the situation,” Brenda says. “Even if it’s the loss of a child, you can turn it around and make something extraordinary.”

Earlier that day, Brenda had been talking about Maria’s dreams for her wide-open future. “She was always saying what she wanted to be when she grew up,” Brenda says. “First she was going to be a famous doctor and make important discoveries. Then she decided she was going to be a star. And finally she was going to be a mother. In a way she got to be two of those things, with the hospital and the movie. So I told John, ‘The one thing we can’t do is make her a mother.’

“But John said, ‘You know, you’re wrong. Every child who walks out of that hospital is Maria’s child.’”   

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