“Household Saints” has so many changes of mood, pacing and focus that it’s impossible to know what it’s really aiming at. After building up some cockeyed charm through the first half, Nancy Savoca’s third feature peels off into obscure and particularized religious mysticism, leaving the viewer grasping in vain for a handle to hold onto for the second hour. This is a very offbeat project that would need to have been brilliant to work; that it isn’t means Fine Line has a difficult marketing task beyond initial specialized dates.
A tale of misfits in postwar Little Italy, film has a peculiar structure that does not unfold smoothly. Spanning more than 20 years and embracing three generations of strange women, this is, among other things, a look at different kinds of faith within the context of otherwise unexceptional lives. Unfortunately, the flights of fancy never stay aloft for long.
Yarn opens during an intenseheat wave in 1949. The local butcher of Mulberry Street, Joseph Santangelo (Vincent D’Onofrio), wins the hand of Catherine Falconetti (Tracey Ullman) in a pinochle game with her father, and marries her despite the misgivings of his witchlike mother, Carmela (Judith Malina).
Under Joseph’s warm influence, Catherine opens up to love and sex, but loses one baby after Carmela heaps superstitious hexes on it.
Little Teresa exhibits a precocious fascination with saints and Catholic legends that grows stronger and more weird in her teens. Determined to become the bride of Christ, she frustrates her parents as well as a boyfriend (Michael Imperioli) with her obsession.
The best things in the film are the many oddball touches — the sudden apparitions, the details of a horrible meal, Carmela’s curious religious observances, Teresa’s tireless ironing of checkered shirts. But the more these accumulate, the less they hang together, leaving the film incoherent as it lurches toward the end.
Beyond the lack of meaningful focus, numerous other elements irritate, such as the virtual disappearance of Joseph and Catherine through a long portion of the second half, the choppy pacing in the film’s second section, and an unsatisfactory and irrelevant subplot involving Catherine’s brother.
Looking uncannily like the young Orson Welles, D’Onofrio unleashes a good deal of charm as the friendly butcher. As his wife, Ullman is forced to be uncommunicative in the early going and never expands much beyond that, while Malina gives a lively account of the nightmare mother-in-law.
But Lily Taylor has the most perplexing part. Entering the scene only after 70 minutes, she has, in a way, an unplayable part, in that her character’s only dimension is unexplained religious fanaticism. Taylor exudes a constant state of misled grace, and one is left not knowing what to make of her.
The cramped interiors of Little Italy are well represented, but one sees little of the streets, and Bobby Bukowski’s lensing is on the drab side. Other tech credits are OK.