A mix of domestic ethnic drama and religious parable, director Nancy Savoca's HOUSEHOLD SAINTS is hard to categorize. More admirable in intention than in execution, its subject matter and pacing may turn off mainstream moviegoers.
The story opens in post-WWII New York, with a particularly intense pinochle game in which Lino Falconetti (Victor Argo) bets his daughter to a young handsome butcher, Joseph Santangelo (Vincent D'Onofrio), who wins. Lino later claims he was kidding, but Joseph does succeed in marrying the
stubborn but ultimately loving Catherine (Tracy Ullman). This doesn't please Joseph's mother Carmela (Judith Malina), who finds Catherine sorely lacking in culinary and household skills. When Catherine becomes pregnant, Carmela warns her not to go into the butcher shop, lest her baby be "marked"
by being in a place of death. Catherine ignores her, and does lose her baby, shortly after which Carmela dies, appropriately enough in the kitchen.
The couple have another child, Teresa, who appears healthy except she's rather serious for her age. She develops a religious obsession, expecially with her namesake, St. Theresa, and when she reaches her teen years announces she wants to join the Carmelite Nuns. Her father totally opposes it,
whereupon Teresa refuses to eat unless her wish is granted. She can't keep up the fast, although her dreams of serving God stay with her. At school she meets ambitious young law major Leonard Villanova (Michael Imperioli), who takes a liking to her and tells her of his plans for the future, but
Teresa is still waiting for a message from above, telling her what her future should be. After going to bed with Leonard, she realizes that God is all around her, but she's still unsure of her path.
While at Leonard's apartment ironing one of his shirts, she has a vision: a handsome, British-accented Jesus appears to her to thank her, and fills the room with hundreds of shirts just like the one she's ironing. When Leonard comes home and she tells him this, he calls her parents, who, upon
hearing the story, have her committed. The Santangelos come to see Teresa at the hospital, and she seems peaceful and content, telling them about a pinochle game she played with God, Jesus, and St. Theresa. Her parents are convinced she is crazy, but the several unexplained events that follow
suggest otherwise, and point to Teresa indeed being a saint.
The main problem with HOUSEHOLD SAINTS is Teresa herself: for most of the film she's such a dour, humorless soul we can't understand or sympathize with her; she does seem truly crazy. The fact that she chooses to merely "serve" others, in small ways like cooking and cleaning, lacks the dramatic
effect of working with sick children or some other more "noble" work. The visit by Jesus is almost played for laughs, so what comes afterwards seems that much more disconcerting, although this may be what Savoca intends. Also slightly disturbing is the seeming endorsement of Carmela's old world
supersitions: her admonitions to Catherine turn out to be right. There's a hint that perhaps Teresa is the dead woman's revenge on the modern, lapsed-Catholic couple, but it's an angle that's not really explored.
The action picks up somewhat when Teresa meets Leonard, but the girl is so cut off from the "real" world (she seems to have hardly any friends), the film is at a loss as to how to tell the story. Perhaps Francine Prose's novel, on which the film is based, is more enlightening, and may explain
the odd subplot about Teresa's unhappy, opera-obsessed Uncle Nicky, which doesn't connect to the main story and seems lifted from another movie. But in some ways, the film's mystery and quiet storytelling work for it; the scenes of the post-war Bronx are authentic (a "sausage consultant" is
acutally listed in the credits) and Savoca intersperses the blue collar reality with visions and dreamlike imagery revealing the characters' inner thoughts. HOUSEHOLD SAINTS succeeds in raising issues and religious ideas like few films before it, making it a movie that's more compelling to discuss
and mull over afterward than to sit through.(Brief nudity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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