Household Saints

1993, NR, 124 min. Directed by Nancy Savoca. Starring Tracey Ullman, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lili Taylor, Judith Malina, Michael Rispoli, Victor Argo.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 3, 1993

The glory of miracles is not in the making but, rather, in the seeing. Anyone can detect a miracle when it's accompanied by blinding flashes of light or fire and brimstone. But miracles exist everywhere in day-to-day living, if only we perceive them; also they can be humanly made rather than heavenly bestowed. Miracles gestate in the cracks of daily life more so than on the altars of divine inspiration. “Man deals, God stacks the deck,” declares one character early in Household Saints, a movie ostensibly about a man in New York's post-WWII Little Italy who wins his wife in a card game. During an insufferable heat wave, Lino Falconetti (Argo) bets his only daughter on one pinochle hand for a blast of cold air from butcher Joseph Santangelo's meat locker. There's something about the girl's raw and sullen demeanor that appeals to Joseph (D'Onofrio). Then, the movie subtly shifts to become what appears to be the story of the transformation of this motherless 17-year-old girl, Catherine Falconetti (Ullman), who cooks and cleans for her gruff father and war-weary brother while indulging her only evident interest (reading movie magazines). Catherine is introduced by her husband to the pleasures of lovemaking (in a scene staged quite simply yet most erotically), introduced by her mother-in-law (Malina) to the secrets of Santangelo sausage-making and Catholic superstition, and introduced to despair by a fateful (or curse-induced, according to her mother-in-law) turn of events. Perhaps the movie is about generational conflict: the younger generation's desire to invent their own luck and the older woman's old wives' tales and superstitions that become self-fulfilling prophecies, and the old philosophical debate about whether life is filled with possibilities or predeterminations. Then, more than an hour into the movie, the story's focus shifts once again, this time to Joseph and Catherine's now-17-year-old daughter Teresa (Taylor). She models herself after St. Teresa of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus, one of Christianity's best-loved saints, whose beliefs centered on “the little way” or finding goodness in life's most humble tasks. (Teresa was awarded the saint's autobiography at her parochial school as a prize for her composition titled “Why Communism is the Anti-Christ.”) Her dad won't let her join a convent, saying, “No daughter of mine is going to slave away to line the Pope's pockets.” So she devotes herself to things like relining the silverware drawer and scrubbing floors. She moves in with her first boyfriend, who is intrigued by her beatific bearing. One day, while ironing her boyfriend's red-and-white checkerboard shirt, Jesus appears in her living room. And, oh, his vestments are so dirty and tattered, having worn them for 2,000 years with no cleaning or mending -- voila, Teresa Falconetti has found her calling (and if you think the name Falconetti is happenstance, check out Carl Dreyer's 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc). Bemoan her frustrated parents, “Just when you think you know how to play the game, God hands you a wild card. God dealt us a daughter who sees Jesus at the ironing board.” Mixed with these details of family saga are generous doses of humor, irony and magic. People have visions, superstitions come true, dead husbands speak, and the Santangelos make miracle sausage; there's a degree of magical realism here that counterbalances the story's existential determinism. Along with Teresa, we begin to take pleasure in the little things comprising this movie, in the unbelabored details that float across the peripheries and in how seemingly minor things lead to other, unexpected things. Director Savoca (True Love, Dogfight) is one of our great American storytellers. There is so much detail here that she gets just right and so much more that she has the courage to simply present without making a scene. The performances she gleans from her players are always impeccable; in Household Saints, she starts with some of the best talents around and inspires them to new heights. Household Saints restores one's faith in miracles while teaching us how to invent them ourselves. That, and also teaching us not to worry about getting stigmata on the carpet when Jesus comes to visit.

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Household Saints, Nancy Savoca, Tracey Ullman, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lili Taylor, Judith Malina, Michael Rispoli, Victor Argo

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