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‘Household Saints’: Miracles on Mulberry Street

Nancy Savoca’s 1993 film “Household Saints,” a warmhearted fable spiced with magic realism and zesty performances, may be the most endearing of multigenerational Italian American family sagas and is likely the most mystical. Heavy on folk belief, it flirts with Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” and the divine madness the Greeks called theia mania.

Seemingly overlooked by the 1993 New York Film Festival, “Household Saints” was included as a restoration last October; it’s opening for a revival run on Jan. 12 at IFC Center.

Savoca and the producer Richard Guay adapted “Household Saints” from Francine Prose’s well-received 1981 novel. If the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer were a product of Little Italy, he might have spun a similar yarn. Amid a 1949 heat wave so hellish the annual feast of San Gennaro has all but been shut down, a rakish young butcher named Joseph Santangelo (Vincent D’Onofrio) wins a wife, Catherine Falconetti (Tracey Ullman), in a game of pinochle. God’s grace or Joseph’s thumb on the scale?

Catherine is the sullen daughter of Lino Falconetti (Victor Argo), a none-too-bright radio repairman. The Santangelos and Falconettis are unfriendly neighbors. Joseph’s superstitious mother, Carmela (played with alarming gusto by Judith Malina), hates her prospective daughter-in-law. Blessings battle tribulations. Savoca contrives a wedding night as filled with rococo confections as the interior of a Palermo church. A curse — disturbingly visualized as a bloody, stillborn infant — is lifted after Carmela dies and a healthy daughter, Teresa, is born.

Among other things, “Household Saints” refracts 25 years of the Cold War through a Mulberry Street lens. Teresa and her playmates are obsessed with the prophecies of Our Lady of Fátima, received by three country children in visions that coincided with the triumph of Russian Bolshevism. As an adolescent, Teresa (Lili Taylor) writes a prizewinning essay on the dangers of Communism. She also becomes a fanatical devotee of her namesake, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, associating piety with a devotion to domestic chores.

Madness runs in the family. In a parallel obsession, Teresa’s Uncle Nicky (Michael Rispoli) searches Chinatown for a dream Madame Butterfly. In the meantime, forbidden by her parents to take Carmelite vows, Teresa enters an earthy relationship with an awkward but ambitious law student (Michael Imperioli). Happily ironing his shirts in their disheveled, casually psychedelic East Village pad, she has an ecstatic vision of Jesus amid an abundance of checkered garments.

“The story is filled with strange, homespun miracles,” Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review when the film was originally released, adding that “this single-minded little film could be counted as one of them.” So too its evocation of Mulberry Street. Largely shot on a North Carolina backlot built for the film “Year of the Dragon,” “Household Saints” seems the most authentically simulated New York movie since Sam Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street.” (The flavorsome line readings are supplied by a bevy of native New York actors, among them Argo, D’Onofrio, Malina, Rispoli and Imperioli.)

“Household Saints” never tips its hand. Eventually institutionalized, the beatific Teresa informs her parents of celestial pinochle games, noting that God (like her dad) cheats at cards. While the once credulous Catherine thinks her daughter has suffered a psychotic break with reality, the anticlerical Joseph takes Teresa for a saint. Thanks to the spell the film casts, they’re both right.

Household Saints

Opens on Jan. 12 at IFC Center, Manhattan; ifccenter.com.


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