Savoca, Nancy: Director Profile

The surprise winner of the 1989 Sundance grand jury prize was a low-budget film called True Love, an exuberantly raucous portrait of an Italian-American wedding. Its director, Nancy Savoca, was then unknown to most filmgoers. Co-written by Savoca and her husband, Richard Guay, the film shows a perceptive eye for humorously realistic settings and down-to-earth characterizations. In fact, some viewers didn;t realize they were watching a movie. True Love boasts a semi-documentary quality and an “obscure” cast of thesps who don't look like actors.

Since then, with three pictures to her credit, Savoca has carved a well-defined niche for herself in the indie world. Savoca's movies benefit from a fresh perspective–her heroines are “natural” and unglamorous–drawn from her outsider's status as a woman. “If there's feminism in my films,” Savoca said, “it's a feminism that asks questions and doesn't define. We should be asking questions rather than laying down the rules of what a woman should or shouldn't do. It's all about choice.” Savoca's work has evolved from the light social satire of True Love to melodrama in Dogfight to an unsuccessful attempt at magical realism in Household Saints. Her movies are demanding, but not entirely rewarding–they tend to be dreary and bland. Only True Love found its audience; Dogfight and Household Saints were failures.

True Love

The heroine of True Love is a young bride planning the wedding she had dreamed about her whole life. Savoca portrays the rites and travails and all the minor details that go into orchestrating a wedding extravaganza–the squabbles over tuxedos, food, rings. But more than anything else, she dwells on the gulf between the sexes. A Bronx-native herself, Savoca conveys the sexual segregation of her own childhood: Women in her films convene in the kitchen.

True Love was made as a counterpoint to such Hollywood movies as Moonstruck (1987), a romantic comedy starring Cher and Nicolas Cage as mismatched lovebirds in an Italian-American community. Savoca steered clear of Moonstruck's charming but phony treatment of the material. Her movie is closer to the Italian-American humor in Scorsese's Mean Streets and Jonathan Demme's Married to the Mob, which were also attentive to the characters' flamboyance and color. Never condescending, True Love shows affection for the specifically ethnic neighborhood and a good ear for the local language of both genders. One of Savoca's poignant observations is that the bride and her friends talk the same way as the men, but they are much tougher than them.

Like his friends, Michael seems to do everything chest-first, never finishing a sentence without a certain indispensable, all-purpose modifier. The groom and his buddies cap off the bachelor party by driving to Atlantic City. They drink themselves sick, then mournfully discuss how to arrange the newlyweds' “Mediterranean” furniture suite. For her part, the bride gets advice from her aunts, who wish her well but also instruct her how to order her husband to “take gas”–i.e., stick his head in the oven–just in case.

Donna (Annabella Sciorra) and Michael (Ron Eldard) want to get married, but they don't realize what exactly marriage entails. Michael represents a mix of contradictions; he's a sweet, decent fellow beneath all the bluster. It's hard for Michael to get a grip on marital responsibilities, to realize that he can't go out with his friends after the wedding. Savoca works a strain of pathos into her comedy, showing a nervous, inexperienced couple in danger of being buried beneath–“I just don't wanna end up hating my life,” Michael says.

Dogfight

In her second film, Dogfight (1991), Savoca also explored sexual politics, this time focusing an unnattractive girl–a type rarely seen in mainstream films. Questioning standards of beauty, Dogfight is about an exceedingly cruel set-up (hence the title), based on an old Marine ritual in which each participant contributes money to a pot, and the winner is the man who shows up with the ugliest date. This “dogfight” takes place in San Francisco, the night before a bunch of Marines is shipped out to Vietnam. Capturing the niavete of the early 1960s, the film is a tender examination of the evolving romance between Eddie Birdplace (River Phoenix) and his “date,” Rose Fenney (Lili Taylor). Savoca fleshes out Rose's experience of the events, as she struggles to salvage her dignity. Both Rose and Eddie are seen as victims of societal conceptions of femininity and masculinity.

Savoca plays for laughs the scenes in which Eddie and his pals search for their “dog.” There's a lovely scene early on, in which Rose gets ready for the date, putting on her nicest dress and discreet makeup, while Eddie tries to trick her into smearing lipstick over her face. Savoca also puts her signature as a female director on the sex scene, which is presented with characteristic attention to detail. The scene lingers on such “proasic” issues as when and where you get undressed on your first date, issues that Hollywood movies never bother with.

Savoca orchestrates a radical shift in the audience's perception. Rose begins as an ugly, gullible, duped woman facing heartbreaking cruelty, but by the end of the film, she's perceived as beautiful, but not in the fake manner of the Australian Cinderella tale, Muriel's Wedding, in which a fat girl (Tony Collette) transforms into a winning beauty. In Dogfight, it is Rose's gracious personality which emerges triumphant.

Despite good elements, Savoca misdirects the film with the kind of pathos that encourages viewers to feel sorry for its characters, first for Rose, then for Eddie. The performances of both Lili Taylor and River Phoenix were exceptional, but the movie would have worked better if it were cast with a truely unattractive woman; Taylor is too appealing for the part. Savoca overidealizes Rose, making her a spiritual woman with pacifist philosophy and liberal politics. In forgiving Eddie, Rose relieves him of the last traces of his Marine machoism and misdirected rage.

Though released by Warners, Dogfight was basically an independent film , met with unfavorable reviews and even poorer commercial prospects. The same fate would befall Savoca's next feature, Household Saints, her most ambitious film to date, a tragi-comic exploration of three generations of Italian-American women as they struggle with the conflicting demands of the Catholic Church on their sexuality and spirituality.

Household Saints

Based on three intertwined tales, the film begins with grandmother Carmella (Judith Maline), a jealous, superstitious woman praying for vengence on her daughter-in-law Catherine (Tracy Ullman). Perfectly average, Catherine was won as a bride by Carmella's son Joseph (Vincent D'Onofrio) in a pinochle game. Raised Catholic, their teenage daughter, Teresa (Lili Taylor), begins to experience fervent visions, which are interpreted as psychotic experiences. Is Teresa mad, or a saint in delirious pursuit of a union with Christ “We've gotten to a point in our society,” said Savoca, “where things that have to do with God and spirituality are taboo, and we treat spiritual matters very much like mental illness.”

Attracted to the magic realism of Francine Rose's book, Savoca frames her movie as a folkloristic tale. “When you hear family tales, you don't question whether it happened or not,” Savoca said. “You accept it as a certain kind of reality that's different.” In all of her films, Savoca looks for the extraordinary in the ordinary, like the Jesus miracle in Household Saints. Author Rose told Savoca that Jesus should be “the Vanilla Ice of Jesuses,” because Teresa is a teenage girl in love. Hence, Savoca wanted “someone who would make your heart stop if you were fourteen,” casting pop star Sebastien Roche as Jesus.

Savoca's singular perspecitive is defined by her womanhood; unlike Kathryn Bigelow, her movies could not be mistaken as male directed. The scene in Household Saints, in which Catherine loses her virginity and then hears the angels singing recalls a similar sequence in Dogfight. Loss of virginity is a rare sight in films and when it's portrayed, as in Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, it's an epiphany that rarely approximates the awkward and painful experience it is for most women.

The exploration of the Italian-American heritage is also from a distinctly female perspective, complementing the films of Coppola, Scorsese, and other Italian-American directors which have ignored women or allotted them peripheral roles. Savoca observed: “As much as it's frustrating for me to watch Italian-American movies made by men, in which there are no women of consequence, there's a very segregated social situation with working-class Italian-Americans. What I love about Scorsese's movies, GoodFellas, Mean Streets, is that I see where those guys go when they leave. When the door closes behind them, it's a Scorsese movie, but when the door closes and we're still in the kitchen, then it's mine.”

Coming of age in the l970s, an era of anti-heroes in American film, Savoca developed an interest in flawed characters like those played by Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, or Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. Savoca's philosophy is rather simple–she wants to see onscreen women like herself, women she can recognize. Refusing to romanticize women, she is intrigued by the opportunity to explore real characters–to idealize women is akin to “cheating.” Stylistically unassuming but substantial, Savoca's work contrasts with the overhyped work of Allison Anders.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, hardcover 200; paperback 2001).