In the name of the Father, the Son, and Uncle Nicky: A Trinity of Masculinities in Nancy Savoca’s Household Saints

| Matthew Christensen |

Devoted Teresa Santangelo coyly averts her gaze from a vision of Christ.

Household Saints plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, June 14th, through Sunday, June 16th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.


I should begin by confessing to a degree of uneasiness over my title for this piece. As the adult son of an evangelical minister, the impact of growing up in a devout household has lingered long into my adulthood. The idea of saying anything that smacks of irreverence still raises within me the specter of punishment; the old fear of divine disappointment gnaws at me. And it is having been raised in the protestant belief that we are all saints that leads me to approach Nancy Savoca’s remarkable Household Saints with a confounding blend of curiosity, recognition, and misplaced nostalgia. The extent of my Catholic education was being told I could not take communion when we attended weddings at St. Pascal’s, that Catholics “keep Christ on the cross” (a reference to the crucifixes that I found much more devotionally and aesthetically engaging than our rather plain, empty Congregational wooden cross), and jealously watching my Catholic classmates leave school early to go to something called CCD. And my guilt apparently knows no bounds, as exploring masculine representation in a film that primarily centers womens’ religious and cultural experiences feels like a cardinal sin. Yet, it is Savoca’s presentation of the men of Household Saints as being equally affected by the “politics of patriarchy,” as Irena Makarushka notes in her article, that warrants inquiry.1 

Household Saints tells the story of three generations of the Santangelo and Falconetti families, tracing the shifts in attitudes toward religious devotion. Over the span of three decades, we witness the stultifying effect of the superstitions of the Santangelo family matriarch, Carmela, on her son and daughter-in-law. Their rejection of her superstition in favor of modern post-war American life does little to prepare them for the advent of their daughter, Teresa, whose saintly aspirations and devotion (diagnosed as acute hallucinatory psychosis) trouble the couple. Savoca approaches the topic of faith with great care and thoughtfulness. She takes no cheap shots at religious belief, nor does she necessarily endorse it. Rather, Savoca embraces the possibility of the divine through diverse generational perspectives.

In Household Saints, Savoca explores religious and familial patriarchy through character of Joseph Santangelo (Vincent D’Onofrio), the father figure in our trinity. He first appears in name only, in the first scene of two that frame the story, as the Italian-American butcher whose sausages are said to have miraculous qualities. Obvious phallic connotations aside, his name and the purported healing properties of his wares symbolically connects Santangelo both to Joseph the earthly father of Jesus and his heavenly father. This connection will be developed over the course of the film. Although Catherine Falconetti (Tracy Ullman), the woman Santangelo “wins” in a game of pinochle, is only referred to as “his wife” in this early exposition, the reminder of patriarchal structures quickly gives way to Savoca’s engaging portrayal of an uncharacteristically egalitarian relationship in post-war America. Despite Catherine’s initial resistance to the arranged marriage, she falls in love and discovers a deeply satisfying sexual awakening with Joseph, repeating Santangelo’s name like a prayer first in anticipation of her marriage, then while in the throes of passion on their wedding night. In tracing the relationship from the hardship of living with Joseph’s superstitious mother, to the miscarriage of their son, Savoca presents an image of Santangelo as a caring husband, a man who lovingly nurses Catherine out of her depression. Santangelo’s act of caring for and replacing Catherine’s houseplants and flowers—a scene that marks Carmela’s death and the conceiving of their daughter Teresa (Lili Taylor)—serves as the first miracle in the film. His small, nurturing act also foreshadows the miracle in the garden of the sanitorium at the end of the film. While Joseph does cheat, is a shameless flirt, and is bullheaded when it comes to his daughter Teresa’s religious aspirations, he shows a capacity for growth and an ability to embrace the possibility of the miraculous. 

Prior to Teresa’s symbolic beatification near the film’s end, her revelation to her father that God cheats at pinochle (a reference to the game in which Joseph “won” Catherine and which the parents are convinced Teresa was unaware) shakes her father and does a couple of things for our understanding of him. First, it ties Teresa’s understanding of God to her father. Second, we see Joseph shift from a place of scepticism to belief. The sudden profusion of flowers in the sanatorium garden that were not present the day before demonstrates this. This and the strong scent of roses emanating from Teresa are noted by Joseph (not Catherine) who deems it a miracle and declares Teresa a saint. Savoca aligns our view with Joseph by visually stressing the presence of the flowers—we too note the blooms and perhaps also acknowledge their unexpected appearance as miraculous. 

Savoca’s exploration of miracles also permeates her depiction of sons. As a young college student, Teresa meets and arouses the attention of Leonard Villanova (Michael Imperioli), an aspiring lawyer. His romantic attraction to Teresa places him in the role of potential son-in-law and savior, a person through whom she can “serve God and family.” However, Teresa, while believing Leonard has been sent by God, sees him as a brother or friend. She even approaches sex with Leonard as a kind of religious test of obedience. Sex makes her feel as if she is “floating out of [her] body” but leaves her with a sense of violation. Leonard also views the act as a desecration stating, “Please God, get me through this and I promise I’ll never do it again.” 

Leonard’s suggestion that devotion to home and family will allow Teresa to fulfill her mission is self-serving. Yet, as Teresa applies herself to acts of service to Leonard by ironing his clothes, we witness the appearance of Jesus himself who weeps at her gesture of “grooming one of my lambs” and performs a of loaves-and-fishes miracle by multiplying Leonard’s red and white checkered shirt (reminiscent of a tablecloth found in Italian-American restaurants). Savoca’s stereotypical depiction of the crucified Christ, Teresa’s shy acknowledgement of him, her request to launder his tattered clothes, and the domestic nature of the miracle itself reinforces Leonard’s own patriarchal influence on Teresa’s understanding of her mission. 

The third part of the trinity is not so explicitly depicted in the film. Yet, I see Catherine’s brother Nicky (Michael Rispoli) as a representation of a holy spirit, a kind of melancholic emotional presence that reminds us of the risks of love. A veteran returned from the Pacific with a dual passion for Italian opera and Asian women, Nicky spends much of the film secretly pining for a laundress in Chinatown while envisioning himself in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly serenading a geisha. As his alcoholism intensifies, so do his tragic attempts to connect with the woman at the Chinese laundry. Nicky’s intense desires parallel Teresa’s through the film. This is exemplified first in Teresa’s concern for Nicky’s soul, leading her to offer up of her first communion for her uncle. As the this storyline unfolds, Savoca invites us to examine Teresa’s own unfulfilled longing to be a bride of Christ in light of Nicky’s unmet earthly passions. 

Nicky’s fantasies are broken when he brings his radio to the laundry to share his love of Italian opera with the woman there. Puccini’s “Vissi d’Arte” underscores the scene as he walks through the rain, bangs on the door, and has the shop owner plug in the radio. Yet when the proprietor turns on the radio, Chinese opera is playing. The disillusionment Nicky experiences is not about female rejection, but of not being understood, of realizing the inaccessibility of his passions. Indeed, we may even look at Nicky as queer coded: he is a solitary outsider who is misunderstood and perpetually unfulfilled. This is reinforced when he returns home and commits the Japanese ritual act of seppuku. His emotionally distant father, Lino (Victor Argo), hears Nicky in his room, singing lines from Tosca

        … I lived on love,

        I never hurt a living soul!

        With a furtive hand

        How many miseries I knew and helped.²

Nicky’s connection to Tosca through the song not only highlights his tragic nature, but further connects him with Teresa who is also associated with music. The Catholic liturgical soundtrack which underscores Teresa’s religious awakening as a young adult is just as present as Uncle Nicky’s Italian opera. The music related to each deepens our understanding of the escapist worlds they inhabit. Through the association of these two characters, we are presented with a uncomfortably melancholic, metaphysical longing, uncomfortable because we may recognize this divinely human impulse. Nancy Savoca’s Household Saints acknowledges the influential, often oppressive, patriarchal structures that weigh upon her characters. However, it is the director’s thoughtful rendering of her trinity of flawed fathers, sons, and disenchanted spirits, that invites and us to witness the holy in the every day. In light of this, we should all get down on our knees and say a prayer of thanks to Saint Teresa for Savoca’s miraculous gem of a film.


Footnotes

1 Irena Makarushka, “Tracing the Other in Household Saints,Literature and Theology (March 1998): 82-92. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23926924.

2 Aaron Green, “’Vissi d’Arte’ Lyrics, Text Translation, and History.” Liveabout (2018). https://www.liveabout.com/vissi-darte-lyrics-and-history-724338.


Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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