Nancy Savoca. Household Saints. 1993.Columbia Tristar Home Video. 124 min. $89.95. also published in Voices in Italian Americana 6.2 (Fall 1995): 218-9.
by Edvige GiuntaHousehold Saints (1993) may strike the viewer as a return to the Italian/American subject of its director's debut, the domestic comedy True Love (1989). At the same time, in her most recent feature film Nancy Savoca explores a new territory and moves beyond the realistic style of her first film. Set in a post-world war Little Italy, Household Saints spans three generations of Italian/American women: the fable begins unfolding with the pinochle game in which Joseph Santangelo (Vincent D'Onofrio) wins his wife, Catherine Falconetti (Tracey Ullman). Catherine's efforts to protect herself and her offspring from the concoctions of religion and witchcraft manufactured by her superstitious mother in law (Judith Malina) prove vain and her daughter Teresa (Lili Taylor) becomes engulfed in the strange brand of mysticism inherited from her grandmother. Savoca's previous films, True Love and Dogfight (1991), articulate her concern with domesticity as a narrative subject and strategy. From the portrayal of characters within domestic spaces--Donna's kitchen and Rose's bedroom--to the reliance on videotaping in True Love--a "domestic" narrative device--to the juxtaposition between the "public" Vietnam war and the "private" encounter between Rose and Eddie in Dogfight, Savoca's films elaborate an aesthetic vision in which domesticity plays a prominent role. Her camera dwells on the domestic detail, and in pseudo-documentary fashion, recreates the world in which her characters live, sleep, love, and eat. In Household Saints Savoca does rely on strategies from her repertoire. However, she is specifically interested in transporting the objects of the domestic space onto another narrative plane, one that is evocative and poetical. This level is represented not only by the surreal shots scattered throughout the film (the superimposition of Teresa and Mrs. Santangelo and the apparition of Jesus performing the "miracle of the shirts" being perhaps the most memorable), but also by the camera angles and cinematic effects which signal Savoca's search for new modes of cinematic storytelling. While in both True Love and Dogfight Savoca had boldly transformed the premises of the genres she employed, in her last film she forges a narrative saturated with an even darker humor, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. According to Savoca, Household Saints represents an effort to connect with and recreate the other side of her ethnic heritage, the Argentinean (Savoca's father is Sicilian and her mother is Argentinean). The magical realism of her fable serves Savoca well as she continues to explore her ethnic identity and to forge an aesthetics which is inextricably linked to her views on ethnicity. Household Saints appears to be a "transitional" film, not only in its wavering between Argentinean and Italian ethnicities, realism and surrealism, authorial signature and adaptation (Savoca co-authored the script for True Love with her husband, Richard Guay, while for Dogfight she relied on a script by the ex-marine Bob Comfort), but also in its partial departure from and elaboration on Savoca's strategies. While the contemporary framework for the narrative perspective replaces the choral narrator of Francine Prose's novel (Household Saints [New York: Ballantine, 1981]) with an Italian/American family chattering at the table, for the most part Savoca remains loyal to Prose's novel. Juxtaposed to the pseudo-documentary style of True Love and Dogfight, such loyalty denotes Savoca's problematic role as possibly the only well known contemporary Italian/American woman director who explicitly explores her ethnicity in film. Inscribing her Argentinean voice in an Italian/American story written by a Jewish writer, Savoca embarks on an exploration of ethnic intersections that, while problematizing ethnic "authenticity," creates a truly multivoiced and multiethnic film.
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