Household Saints: Nancy (True Love) Savoca’s Third Film, Starring Lili Taylor and Tracy Ullman

Nancy Savoca’s third feature, Household Saints, her most ambitious film to date, is 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.

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 perspective 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.