True Love (1989): Nancy Savoca’s Sundance Fest Winner, Starring Annabella Sciorra and Ron Eldard

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.

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.