An end of the road most of us hope won’t look quite so bleak is portrayed in “The Patron Saints,” the feature debut of documentarians Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky. Portrait of a crowded residential care facility for the elderly and firm doesn’t flinch from the most depressing elements of senility, abandonment and despair. Poetical rather than narrative or information-focused structure won’t tempt mainstream educational broadcasters. But those open to more abstract nonfiction may bite, in addition to fest and cinematheque programmers.
Narrator is James, a mobility-impaired product of foster homes and jail stints who’s landed at pic’s unnamed U.S. nursing home somewhat earlier than most, age-wise. He’s not the most sympathetic observer — as he seems to find other residents’ myriad woes funny — but he’s a colorful one who provides pretty much the only notes of humor here. (Notably when recalling a long-ago drunken house party’s aftermath: “I wake up the next day, there was two broads [in bed] with me, and chicken wings everywhere.”)
Otherwise, those living here are primarily in pitiful spirits and physical states, though their medical conditions go unspecified. There’s the windowed Hungarian emigre who simply, often loudly, wants to die; a resident whose mantra-like repeated plea “Gimme a little bit a coffee pleeeease” abruptly switches to “I hope she chokes on it” when her roommate actually gets some; the blind younger one still visited (albeit with police escort) by a brother who molested her for years. Distilling the confusion experienced by many is a woman who keeps asking no one in particular “Where’s my mother? Why am I here? Somebody please tell me.”
Another who clearly isn’t going home soon, or likely ever, is petitioned to do so by a hulking middle-aged son incapable of caring for himself — we briefly glimpse him in a car piled neck-high with junk food wrappers. James notes that the picturesque hills surrounding the facility (located in a rather desolate area near an airport) were created from landfill, a gift-wrapped metaphor if ever there was one.
Though at first environment seems almost Dickensian, helmers also make clear that largely Hispanic and African-American staff here are doing the best they can on likely low pay and budgetary resources. It’s not a place one can work without considerable resources of patience and generosity (though when we see James interact with some nurses, it’s quite clear they view him as a trouble-maker).
Low-res lensing adds to downbeat air, and will doubtless be easier on the eyes on the small screen. Classical and avant-garde (Arvo Part, John Cage) compositions provide somber soundtrack accompaniment; when we hear cheerier music music (a resident’s tone-deaf rendition of “America the Beautiful,” dance music from a couple visiting vocalists), it feels like ironic counterpoint.