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`Household Saints' Digs Into Religious Themes

Nancy Savoca's touching film pushes moviegoers to think for themselves

ONE movie at a time, women continue to challenge the long-held male domination of American film. Recent examples of this effort, from ``The Ballad of Little Jo'' to ``The Joy Luck Club'' and ``Boxing Helena,'' show female directors and writers tackling difficult subjects that relate to women on social as well as cinematic grounds.

These include family relations, issues of equality and independence, and freedom from both oppression and idealization by power-wielding men. While far from perfect, the films raise questions and provoke thought in ways that few pictures from Hollywood's old-boy network care to do.

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The most fascinating of the latest woman-made movies is ``Household Saints,'' directed by Nancy Savoca from a screenplay she wrote with Richard Guay, based on a novel by Francine Prose.

This film has a structural flaw - its first and second halves are not well-integrated with each other - that may confuse moviegoers and prevent the picture from finding the audience it deserves. For spectators who open their hearts to its deeply felt story, however, it offers rich rewards.

The story begins as a comedy-drama about broadly drawn Italian-American characters, showing how a butcher named Joseph Santangelo wins the hand of young Catherine Falconetti from her father in a late-night pinochle game.

Catherine doesn't like the idea of an arranged marriage - this isn't the Old Country, she spiritedly reminds her dad - but no better prospects have come along. So she marries Joe, moves into his home, and sets about coping with his strong-willed mother, who has a story, a saying, and a superstition to suit every conceivable occasion.

The first half of ``Household Saints'' focuses on these characters and a few others in the neighborhood, sketching a frequently amusing portrait of Italian-American folkways without breaking any new ground. But the movie undergoes a major shift when Catherine and Joe have a daughter named Teresa, who proves to be a most unusual child.

From her earliest years, she is preoccupied with questions about her Roman Catholic faith, and by high school age she's determined to become a nun. Joe rigidly opposes this - he's a religious man, but very skeptical about the church - so Teresa decides to honor God through fastidious devotion to ordinary daily activities, particularly the household tasks often thought of as thankless ``women's work.''

She carries her self-sacrifice to extremes that are obviously unwise, as when she goes through a period of refusing to eat for religious reasons. Yet she manages to function in the everyday world - going to college, finding a boyfriend, discovering sex - until she has a mystical visitation one afternoon over her ironing board. She is convinced she's been specially blessed; everyone else is convinced she's lost contact with reality. The end of the story is either tragic or triumphant, depending upon one's view of Teresa and her quest.

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It would have been easy for the filmmakers to give definitive answers about Teresa, either signalling that she has become insane or showing some kind of miracle to prove that her visions are real and true. By demanding that each moviegoer come to an individual conclusion about this, ``Household Saints'' challenges its audience to think about matters that most commercial films consider too difficult, sensitive, or simply unfashionable to handle.

Equally bold is the movie's strong feminist orientation, framing Teresa's enigmas in a context of domestic chores and suggesting that even the most ordinary of these may point to a spiritual dimension.

There are numerous things wrong with ``Household Saints,'' from its two-part construction to its weak handling of subplots. Yet it remains a touching and stimulating experience, showing depths in filmmaker Savoca that were only hinted at in the finely drawn ``True Love'' and the unfortunately ragged ``Dogfight,'' her previous features.

Lili Taylor gives a brave and inventive performance as Teresa; other solid work comes from Tracey Ullman as her mother, Vincent D'Onofrio as her father, and Judith Malina as the old Italian matriarch. Jonathan Demme was the executive producer.

* ``Household Saints'' has an R rating. It contains sex, nudity, and vulgar language.

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