Heaven Help It

"Household Saints"

directed by Nancy Savoca

produced by Jonathan Demme

Fine Line Features

It was originally conceived as a guy winning his wife in a card game. And then I just kept going," says Francine Prose, author of the novel upon which "Household Saints" is based. One almost wishes that she hadn't kept going. Set in New York's Little Italy in the years following World War II, "Household Saints" is an exploration of the lives of three generations of Italian-American women that starts off rich in detail and comedy, and ends in an inexplicable twist of surrealist abandon.

The story opens in a New York City heat wave as Joseph Santangelo (Vincent D'Onofrio), a butcher, wins his wife in a pinochle game with her father. The father bets his daughter's hand; Joseph bets a cold blast of air from his meat locker. After a small protest, Catherine Falconetti (Tracey Ullman, the overblown British comedienne) marries him, becomes pregnant, and falls victim to her haggard mother-in-law's Old World superstitions. Her first miscarried child seems to possess a chicken's wings. Why? Because she walked into the butcher's shop while Joseph slaughtered a turkey, of course. We know that something other than a quaint portrait of 1940s Little Italy is taking form here.

Her second child, Teresa (Lili Taylor), is a healthy girl who becomes a religious fanatic. After her father forbids her to join a convent, Jesus appears to her at her boyfriend's apartment. "Falling in love" with Him, she is committed to a mental ward and by the end of the movie merits canonization by her neighborhood.

Under the pretext of examining generational change, "Household Saints" offers us little insight or amusement. Instead of evolving through struggle to balance the experiences of old world and new, the characters in this movie oscillate back and forth from rigid traditionalism to moderation and back again.

The matriarch of the family (Judith Malina) is tradition's slave. When she dies, Catherine rids her house of the dark ornaments of Catholicism, deciding to become a middle-class housewife more in tune with the times. The strongest tie is between grandmother and grand-daughter, who have never known each other, but who share a spirit which bypasses the middle-of-the-road Catherine. Teresa reclaims her grandmother's exigent religious fanaticism. But religion liberates Teresa from her present life, instead of tying her down to it.

This is, of course, all very subtle, and one has difficulty overlooking Tracey Ullman's coarse performance as an Italian-American butcher's wife. Aside from the fact that she looks like a man in a bad wig, she struggles to conceal her cockney accent and is inexpressive at best. Lili Taylor as Teresa tries too hard to convey a lowly monastic plainness, ending up as flat as Ullman. Judith Malina plays the matriarch Carmela as charmingly as an unfed pit-bull.

Towards the end of the movie, the National Enquirer-esque tone escalates, starting with the scene in which Ullman gives birth to a chicken. Teresa's first sexual experience makes the screen go blue and bubble as if underwater; Jesus shows up sporting a British accent, and instead of multiplying loaves of bread and fish, coats the room in red-and-white checkered shirts; and in the end, stigmata scars appear on Teresa's palms. All of this, and Joseph's sausage starts curing heart disease and cancer.

"Household Saints" starts by revealing the small goings-on in a caricatured Little Italy with charming, trenchant detail. A butcher's son, in an agonizing move, bets his only ticket to the Met in a pinochle game with his friends; old women squeeze large, ripe eggplant, and tell tall tales of how they made soup out of clam shells stolen from the back door of a seafood restaurant; a sausage-maker chants an ancient rhyming Italian recipe while she kneads meat. From here, reality glides quickly away with no emerging theme to fill the void, and the movie, like Teresa, can only say to itself: "This is my punishment...to become nothing."