Household Saints

During a brutal heat wave in 1949’s Little Italy, four men gather to play pinochle in the back of Joseph Santangelo’s (Vincent D'Onofrio) butcher shop.  When the unlucky Lino Falconetti (Victor Argo) runs out of money, he puts his daughter’s hand up against the promise of an extended blast from Joe’s meat locker.  Of course Joe wins the bet, and his easy going agreement to go through with the marriage sends his mother Carmela (Judith Malina), who views the girl as lackluster and the family beneath them, into about as big a tizzy as Catherine Falconetti (Tracey Ullman) herself in “Household Saints.”

Laura's Review: B+

When Carmela questions her dead husband Vincenzo (Thomas Ford) just how their son could make a decision like this, he replies ‘Man deals and God stacks the deck,’ all of the themes from this adaptation of Francine Prose’s novel in one statement.  Cowriter (with "True Love's" Richard Guay)/director Nancy Savoca’s 1993 film was almost lost until it received a 4K restoration and Savoca’s interjections of fantastical elements upon its three generations of Italian Americans should delight both new and repeat audiences.  Among the film’s cast are actors who would go on to portray 'The Sopranos' Christopher Moltisanti, Jackie April and Aunt Dottie.

When we first meet Catherine, we see her nurturing side as she cares for plants on the windowsill, but the dour young woman who goes to Santangelo’s to buy sausages isn’t impressed by the flirtatious butcher, calling him out for putting his thumb on the scale, his sexual innuendo about his digit flying over her head.  When she is ordered to prepare a feast for her unwanted suitor and his mother, Catherine is challenged with poor produce pickings and a faulty oven and while Joseph compliments her antipasto, his mother, the creator of her son’s famous sausages, sees only bad omens.

Surprisingly, after an amusing scene changing out of her wedding gown under cover of a flannel nightgown, Catherine blossoms under her husband’s thumb, sex bringing smiles and a quick pregnancy, but when the new bride visits the butcher shop as her husband is slaughtering a turkey, her superstitious mother-in-law declares she’s marked her unborn child.

Religious themes, luck and bargaining are threaded throughout “Household Saints,” with Easter Sunday bringing a death and new life, Catherine, having spent 8 months in bed after her child was stillborn, joyous at the sight of her dead plants all blooming.  But although the Santangelo couple aren’t religious themselves, Carmela’s spirit will live on in their daughter Teresa (Lili Taylor), who is determined to follow in her saint name’s footsteps by doing household chores without being asked.

Savoca has recreated the hold of the Catholic Church on young parochial school students in a thoroughly relatable way for anyone who once wore a Catholic school uniform.  Teresa’s obsession with such things as holy cards, votive candles and “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima” are both nostalgic and revelatory, the Church’s patriarchal influence troubling as can be seen in Teresa’s descent into ‘sainthood,’ a form of madness.  The director visualizes flights of fancy with skill, Nicky Falconetti’s (Michael Rispoli) love of ‘Madame Butterfly’ evoking the titular subject via a radio in his repair shop, Joseph imagining his future wife in a child’s Communion attire.  Production designer Kalina Ivanov (2023’s “The Boys in the Boat”) not only creates the intimacy of a close-knit Italian American neighborhood, but recreates the Santangelo apartment after Carmela’s death, Catherine whisking out the dark and religious with the bright and modern.  Teresa’s obsession with ironing boyfriend Leonard Villanova’s (Michael Imperioli) red and white checked shirt becomes a roomful of fluttering fabric reminiscent of Italian restaurant tablecloths.  Director of photography Bobby Bukowski (“Till”) lighting on Taylor is almost supernatural, the actress looking literally angelic.

The ensemble is expertly cast, Malina perfection as the black clad widow, Ullman surprisingly effective as an Italian American, Taylor’s quiet steadiness unearthly, D'Onofrio’s down-to-earth playfulness their connective thread.  “Household Saints” is a small miracle.   

Robin's Review: B

Milestone Films and Kino Lorber release the 4K restoration of "Household Saints" in theaters beginning on 1/5/24 - click here for more info.