The 1993 Nancy Savoca film “Saints of the house”, a warm fable spiced with magical realism and piquant performances, is perhaps the most endearing of the multi-generational Italian-American family sagas and is probably the most mystical. Strong in popular beliefs, he flirts with Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” and with the divine madness that the Greeks called theia mania.
Apparently neglected by the New York Film Festival in 1993, “Saints of the house» was included as a restoration last October; it opens for a revival on January 12 at the IFC Center.
Savoca and producer Richard Guay adapted “Household Saints” from Francine Prose’s well-received 1981 novel. If writer Isaac Bashevis Singer were a product of Little Italy, he might have told a similar story. In the midst of such a hellish heat wave in 1949 that the annual San Gennaro festival has been virtually interrupted, a young libertine butcher named Joseph Santangelo (Vincent D’Onofrio) wins his wife, Catherine Falconetti (Tracey Ullman), in a pinochle game. God’s grace or Joseph’s thumb on the scale?
Catherine is the sullen daughter of Lino Falconetti (Victor Argo), a not-too-bright radio repairman. The Santangelos and the Falconettis are hostile neighbors. Joseph’s superstitious mother, Carmela (played with alarming enthusiasm by Judith Malina), hates her future daughter-in-law. Blessings fight tribulations. Savoca imagines a wedding night as filled with rococo confectionery as the interior of a Palermo church. A curse – ominously visualized as a bloodied stillborn baby – is lifted after Carmela’s death and the birth of a healthy daughter, Teresa.
Among other things, “Household Saints” refracts 25 years of the Cold War through the prism of Mulberry Street. Teresa and her playmates are obsessed with the prophecies of Our Lady of Fátima, received by three rural children in visions that coincided with the triumph of Russian Bolshevism. As a teenager, Teresa (Lili Taylor) writes a prize-winning essay on the dangers of communism. She also became a fervent follower of her namesake, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, combining piety and dedication to domestic tasks.
Madness runs in the family. In a parallel obsession, Teresa’s Uncle Nicky (Michael Rispoli) searches Chinatown for a dream Madame Butterfly. Meanwhile, with her parents forbidding her from taking Carmelite vows, Teresa begins an earthly relationship with an awkward but ambitious law student (Michael Imperioli). Happily ironing her shirts in their disheveled, nonchalantly psychedelic East Village carpet, she has an ecstatic vision of Jesus amid an abundance of plaid clothes.
“The story is full of strange, homemade miracles,” wrote Janet Maslin in her New York Times review upon the film’s initial release, adding that “this determined little film might be considered one of them”. The same goes for his evocation of Mulberry Street. Filmed largely on a North Carolina backlot built for the film “Year of the Dragon,” “Household Saints” appears to be the most authentically simulated New York film since Sam Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street.” (The savory line readings are provided by a host of New York native actors, including Argo, D’Onofrio, Malina, Rispoli and Imperioli.)
The “Family Saints” never give up. Eventually institutionalized, Blessed Teresa informs her parents of heavenly pinochle games, noting that God (like her father) cheats at cards. While the once gullible Catherine believes her daughter has suffered a psychotic break from reality, the anticlerical Joseph mistakes Teresa for a saint. Thanks to the charm that the film casts, they are both right.
Saints of the house
Opening January 12 at the IFC Center, Manhattan; ifccenter.com.