Household Saints

by Glenn Erickson Apr 23, 2024

Nancy Savoca belongs in the top rank of creative filmmakers of the 1990s. This unorthodox telling of a ‘neighborhood miracle’ may be her most ambitious and original work. TV comedienne Tracey Ullman surprised everyone with her unusual characterization, but Lili Taylor stole the show with the most compelling depiction ever of someone enraptured by faith — a special effect halo would be superfluous. Vincent D’Onofrio and Ullman age convincingly; the two-generation ethnic mini-epic about ‘ordinary miracles’ is difficult to synopsize. Also outstanding are actors Judith Malina and Michael Rispoli. The disc contains two early Savoca student films, and an excellent new making-of documentary.

Household Saints
The Milestone Cinematheque
1993 / Colo / 1:85 widescreen / 120 min. / Street Date April 23, 2024 / Available from Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Tracey Ullman, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lili Taylor, Judith Malina, Michael Rispoli, Victor Argo, Michael Imperioli, Rachael Bella, Illeana Douglas, Joe Grifasi, Dale Carman, John Di Benedetto, Marie DeCicco, Nancy Marie, Sam Josepher, Elizabeth Bracco, Sebastian Roche, Leonardo Cimino.
Cinematography: Bobby Bukowski
Art Director: Kalina Ivanov
Costume Design: Eugene Bafaloukos
Film Editor: Elizabeth Kling
Original Music: Stephen Endelman
Screenplay by Richard Guay, Nancy Savoca from the novel by Francine Prose
Executive Producer Jonathan Demme
Produced by Richard Guay, Peter Newman
Directed by
Nancy Savoca

Women film directors didn’t get that many opportunities in the 1990s, especially not if they wanted to focus on subjects and characters that didn’t pander to the assumed preferences of the mainstream audience. Nancy Savovca’s first three films ignored those boundaries. 1989’s True Love depicts the social undertow that propels a couple toward a marriage, almost against their will. 1991’s Dogfight takes on the ugly side of American ‘romance’ even more directly, with Lili Taylor the victim of an impossibly cruel, but entirely believable, macho stunt.

Going even further in its subversive brilliance is Savoca’s 1993 Household Saints, a movie that was for a very long time difficult to see. This disc release is another happy cinematic rescue by Milestone Film.  *

Included are a terrific making-of documentary with Ms. Savoca and her producing partner Richard Guay, and two of Savoca’s student films. They show a director with a keen talent for dramatizing so-called ‘ordinary’ life.  She’s good when filming her own Italian-American background — modest, earthy, no gangsters — and not a ‘Little Italy’ imitation of an English kitchen sink movie. Savoca had production experience on films by the equally mellow Jonathan Demme. That makes complete sense — in his  Melvin and Howard, Demme demonstrated a kindred knack for depicting marginalized Americans without turning them into sideshow curiosities.


What ‘miracle’ could possibly get a movie like this made?

Household Saints weaves its spell without giving us a specific identification figure — three or four characters express the author’s feelings about the unknowability of life, of relationships. The making-of docu suggests that Nancy Savoca found Francine Prose’s novel to be both true to life and mystifying; it was something she had to adapt for the screen. Prose says that she soon realized that Savoca was the ideal director to make it. Although other producers were involved, Jonathan Demme’s abiding faith in Savoca was another key factor. Demme’s praise suggest that he believes she’s a more sensitive filmmaker than he is.

Savoca’s film is said to stay very close to the novel, which no studio would ever consider a good commercial bet: it’s about a specific ethnic community (too narrow, Savoca was told), and it has fantastic elements of faith that aren’t defined as either real or imagined. It’s a two-generation story set in a neighborhood culture where simply subsisting is considered a success. Few people get to make their own life-decisions, and everything seems to happen by chance.


Oh, another cute movie about an Italian-American neighborhood . . . not.

This movie may at first remind us of the old Paddy Chayefsky favorite about the Bronx butcher,  Marty. The butcher in Household Saints is Joseph Santangelo (Vincent D’Onofrio of  Full Metal Jacket) a good-looking and self-confident bachelor. He puts his thumb on the meat scale. He also cheats at Pinochle, but not when he wins a hand against his neighbor Lino Falconetti (Victor Argo) — who as part of a wager, thoughtlessly offers his daughter Catherine’s hand in marriage. Half-serious or not, the wedding goes forward, initiating a chain of odd character conflicts. Little in Household Saints seems inspired by other sentimental tales about urban ethnic Americans.

A main draw for the film was that Catherine Falconetti is played by TV star Tracey Ullman, then known mainly as a comedienne and singer. The reclusive, quiet Catherine seems to be living in a fog; her father thinks she’s sliding quietly into spinsterhood. She doesn’t resist Joseph’s courtship or the marriage; it’s as if she doesn’t think anything in her life is under her control, anyway. It’s a passive … romance? … but not unpleasant. In this neighborhood Joseph is considered a catch.

The story begins in the late 1940s. We spend twenty years with Joseph and Catherine, in a mini-society that is part of one’s makeup whether one accepts it or not. Little Italy still has one foot in Old World superstition. Joseph’s mother Carmela (Judith Malina of  Dog Day Afternoon and  The Addams Family) casts an unexpectedly malign influence on Catherine’s first pregnancy — we can’t tell if the woman is sincere, or if she’s openly trying to sabotage the marriage. Catherine feels isolated and insecure.


Joseph is no Prince Charming of sensitivity, but he is a halfway gentle man. He cares about his wife and his hoped-for family. Outside of Carmela’s sniping, the marriage seems to work. Sort of a wild card in the mix is Catherine’s umarried brother Nicky (Michael Rispoli of  To Die For), a war veteran with emotional issues brought back from combat in the Pacific. Nicky is obsessed with everything Japanese. He finds peace only when listening to opera — Madame Butterfly especially.

No spoilers.

A second pregnancy for Catherine produces a daughter, Teresa. The later sections of the story sees school-age Teresa (Rachael Bella) becoming wholly engulfed by her religious studies. As a teen she’s played by Lili Taylor, the star of Nancy Savoca’s previous film  Dogfight. Catherine treats Teresa’s spiritual commitment as something to be ignored, in the hope that it will pass on its own. Joseph lets it be known, loudly, that no daughter of his is going to become a nun. Can faith and reality be reconciled?  Teresa’s conflict is expressed in a way completely different than anything we’ve seen. Most Hollywood  movies about Saints can’t help but come across as fairy tales.


Teresa’s response is to try to live in a spiritual bubble, insulated from the sins of modern life. She suffers at the sight of her uncle Nick, the alcoholic; perhaps she identifies with him as a misfit and social outsider. Teresa tries to project her love of Jesus onto a boy who shows some interest in her, Leonard (Michael Imperioli). Her ‘subjective state of grace’ is a kind of beatified delirium — calm, peaceful, but disturbing. Joseph and Catherine can only hope for the best. They never had answers for their own problems, let alone the special case of their beloved Teresa.

Household Saints feels wholly original. The domestic status quo in the late 1940s is what might be expected: he-men like Joseph get their way in most things. Tracey Ullman expresses the psychological situation of the reclusive, unsure Catherine, who never thought she would have her own family life. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Joseph surprises himself by being a faithful and loyal husband, even if he at first takes Catherine as a pleasant possession. Judith Malina’s Carmela hasn’t an ounce of ‘sweet Italian mother’ sentiment, yet we don’t see her as a monster. Do we ever really fully understand our own relatives?


The film’s heart is Lili Taylor, who as Teresa projects an inner light of goodness bursting to get out. We wonder how many nun-novitiates enter The Life with such pure hearts, only to find that the vocation falls short of their illusions. The powerful charge of purity generated by Ms. Tayor is scary, We are in awe, but also very concerned. We know too well what can become of people that are Too Good For This World.

Nancy Savoca’s direction is visually & emotionally precise. Her show doesn’t dwell on fantastic imagery, but it does make use of subjective visuals to express the inner life of both Teresa and Nicky Falconetti. For him it’s visions of Japanese opera singers. Teresa’s ‘miracles’ are filmed in a simple, matter-of-fact way. Savoca instead reserves the fancy camerawork for ordinary things in the life of these 2nd generation immigrants, especially food and cooking. The film’s camera crane hovers over kitchen tables and dives into sizzling stove-tops — but Teresa’s religious visions are covered in an unadorned straightforward manner … no heavenly backlight or haloes.


Bright shirts that look like Italian restaurant tablecloths…

Household Saints never goes entirely tragic — the bad things that happen seem wholly expected … maybe even proper. Teresa’s most out-there ‘miraculous’ experience could be a surreal vision in a Luis Buñuel picture, minus the corrosive attitude. Without getting specific, we note that there is a cast member (Sebastian Roche) listed as playing Jesus. It’s neither a joke nor anything disrespectful.

The story is structured as a flashback from an Italian-American gathering in the 1970s. It is told as a possible miracle that nobody’s being asked to believe — not exactly. The atypical narrative progression forces us to pay close attention — with the title Household Saints, is the show going to be about a religious miracle?  A studio story editor would surely recommend discarding the Nicky Falconetti character as an unnecessary sidebar. It is instead given special coverage — like Teresa, Nicky is an odd duck who doesn’t fit in.

As we said, Nancy Savoca’s Household Saints was not easy to see for quite a while … and now it seems a more precious object than ever. If it was a complete box office bust when new, we don’t want to hear about it. Just understand that it can’t be pigeonholed as a serio-comedy about ‘crazy Italian-Americans.’  We found ourselves thinking about it for quite a while afterwards. Its relationships don’t unfold like ‘something that happens to Other People’ — they are univerally identifiable.



The Milestone Cinematheque’s Blu-ray of Household Saints is a glowingly fine restoration of a film we knew was going to be special. The color cinematography is always attractive, and the soundtrack as clear as a bell — expect operatic arias as well as a few pop songs that add flavor to the changing times. Teresa’s teenage infatuation with her unexpected boyfriend comes around the same time as we hear Melanie’s record “Lay Down” (Candles in the Wind). We even hear a piece of a Moody Blues song.

Milestone goes beyond rescuing a neglected picture. The disc provides a good introduction to filmmaker Nancy Savoca. Her two student films show visual talent and an ease with dramatic situations; both have excellent performances by children. The second film Bad Timing happens to be the screen debut of actor Chris Cooper, later of John Sayles’  Matewan and  Lone Star.


Some older interview videos are present. Parts of them are integrated into a new documentary by Martina Savoca-Guay, Nancy and Richard’s daughter — who Nancy was carrying during the filming of Household Saints. Popping back and forth between Nancy, Richard and author Francine Prose in both 1992 and 2024, we get a close-up look at a production that went really, really well. It was determined that the most practical way to recreate ‘Little Italy 1949’ was to adapt a street set in a North Carolina film studio. Savoca invited her relatives and neighbors down to the location to serve as extras with authentic accents and attitudes — all dressed up in clothing from 1949. As Savoca says, ‘it all worked perfectly.’

A second unit filmed cutaways and the fantastic effects, such as lovemaking filmed through a water tank to create an ‘underwater’ illusion. The very pregnant Savoca walked very slowly between the units several times a day. Instead of the usual ‘so-and-so was great’ fluff coverage, Ms. Savoca-Guay’s highly-recommended documentary is a fine record of a very special filmmaking story. Milestone’s Amy Heller and Dennis Doros served as executive producers.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Household Saints
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Nancy Savoca student films Renata (1982), Bad Timing (1983)
Making-of docu The Many Miracles of Household Saints (2023) by Martina Savoca-Guay
Archival interviews with Jonathan Demme, Vincent D’Onofrio, Tracey Ullman, Lili Taylor, Nancy Savoca, Richard Guay, Judith Malina, Peter Newman
New interview with Nancy Savoca and Lili Taylor by Richard Guay.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
April 20, 2024

*   No kidding, getting to see Household Saints in such a special restoration is a real treat. Many of us keep personal lists, consciously or unconsciously, of movies we fear might be gone forever. I’m hot to rediscover Robert Clouse’s  Darker than Amber, although I have a feeling I’ll be disappointed. But the film that most often comes to mind as being in need of rescue is Victor Nuñez’s  A Flash of Green.  May the cinema Gods be praised. CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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