Faith and Religion in Film: Household Saints and Therese

How does one reward ambitious films that ultimately are not very good. This was the question raised after watching the gufted Nancy Savoca’s “Household Saints,” based on Francine Prose’s novel.

In the past, Hollywood has tackled religion in preposterous epics, a la Cecil B. DeMille–the unintentionally campy, “The Ten Commandments” (1956).

The other strategy was reflected in romantic-sentimental tales as Jennifer Jones’ l943 star vehicle (and Oscar-winning performance), “The Song of Bernadette,” the saga of a French girl, Bernadette Soubirous, whose visionary experience incurs the community’s wrath.

Savoca’s “Household Saints” changes gears and moods so rapidly that the overall impression is that of an incoherent work. Encompassing a household of Italian-Americans for three generations, Savoca tells the story of three women. Tracey Ullman, in one of her least actorish roles, plays Catherine Falconetti, an unattractive woman won by Joseph Santangelo (Vincent D’Onofrio) in a pinochle game with her father.

In the first–and better–part of the movie, Catherine is tortured by her nasty mother-in-law (played by veteran actress Judith Malina as a modern witch), who never approved of the marriage in the first place. There are some excellent scenes, most taking place in the kitchen or around the dining table, that capture the Italian obsession with food, specifically sausages and sauces.

It’s in this part that Puccini’s grand and melodic opera, “Madama Butterfly,” is used. Catherine’s brother Nicki, a frustrated middle-aged man, weary from fighting in World War II and longing for some beauty in his dreary life, always listens to this opera, even engages in visualizing it.

The film’s third woman and nominal heroine, Teresa (Lili Taylor), is introduced in the second, “religious,” part of the narrative. And it’s in this section that the movie is at its most ambitious–and weakest. Granted that it’s hard to visually portray religious transformation, the movie also fails to capture Teresa’s mysticism and transformation. The usually reliable Lili Taylor has to play a religious fanatic, a woman believing she’s a saint. But instead, she comes across as a misfit, a mentally disturbed woman.


I am not sure that the issues of faith and religiosity are cinematic, or even filmable, but perhaps in the hands of another director it could have succeeded. If you wish to see a wonderful movie about religious transformation, I suggest that you rent Alain Cavalier’s l986 French film “Therese,” a stark, stylized evocation of the real-life 15-year-old girl whose desire was to become a Carmelite nun and be wedded to Christ.

Premiering in the Cannes Film Festival, “Therese” is one of the most beautiful and lyrical films about faith and religious transformation I have seen.