Film review: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
2006
Madman Films

STARRING Dianne Wiest, Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBeouf, Channing Tatum, Rosario Dawson, Melonie Diaz, Eleonore Hendricks, Adam Scarimbolo, Chazz Palminteri, Martin Compston, Anthony DeSando, Eric Roberts
WRITTEN BY Dito Montiel
PRODUCED BY Charlie Corwin, Robert Downey Jr., Jonathan Elias, Clara Markowicz, Trudie Styler, Travis Swords, Sting
DIRECTED BY Dito Montiel

SHOT BY Éric Gautier
EDITED BY Jake Pushinsky, Christopher Tellefsen
MUSIC BY Jonathan Elias
DISTRIBUTED BY First Look International

Screened on 2006-09-17

Present-day Dito (Downey) has achieved literary success and subdued happiness 15 years after wrenching himself from his family, friends, and other hopeless victims of the quagmire of 1986 Queens.  When Dito’s father (Palminteri) becomes seriously ill, his mother (Wiest) makes that large first call, imploring Dito to return before it’s too late.  Dito returns to the old neighborhood and upon seeing a few familiar faces and locales, reminisces thoroughly on the hell of his childhood.  Most of the film is told in these flashbacks, in which young Dito (LaBeouf – nice job, LaBeouf) and his motley crew stagger around Queens without adult supervision.  Dito’s friends run from eccentric to insane: pal Guiseppe is a spitting image of DeNiro’s ‘Johnny Boy’ from Mean Streets, and big brother Antonio just can’t wait for a good reason to start a fight.  Saints shines a spotlight onto Antonio, son of an abusive father; a role that will no doubt garner Tatum attention, provoking us, pleading, really, to give help, whatever help we can, to the victims of spiritual rape – the violent rending of innocence, of hope, to be replaced with confusion and guilt, creating a tumultuous raging young man – injustice at its most merciless.  Injustice that cannot be reconciled, that drove Dito’s crew wild.  The film offers two moral lessons, and the other dilemma is centered around Dito and his father.  Resolutely stubborn, a large leathery beating heart that only New York could produce, Palminteri loves Dito and the children around, but cannot save them from the jungle.  As Dito looses his grip and aches for flight, relations between him and father strain until a climactic, stirring, and surprisingly layered confrontation, which captures the film’s spiritual conflict and the helpless state in which it leaves its characters.

The film would’ve been exponentially more powerful if Montiel had chosen one narrative style instead of the grab bag we’re given – one particular sequence features 4th-wall-be-damned Character Portraits in which each actor tells the camera his place in the world (a sophomoric, unnecessary sequence, out of character with the rest of the film).  Handheld verite abounds, and it takes a good half of the film until we’re left not wanting more from scenes, but once Saints picks up it stays up.  Damned if it doesn’t want to be KIDS, and if not for a certain staginess (and the fact that KIDS already took those brave steps) it may have succeeded.

The ‘how’ of Saints could stand tweaking, but the dilemmas behind it linger: ‘save yourself’ or ‘leave no man behind?’  To be honest – said dilemma, purports the film, is not a dilemma: the answer is to dedicate yourself to others, selfish acts only hurt.  The film has made its choice, but I feel that it is more powerful to consider objectively.  Is Dito selfish or smart?  The choice: to live for others, or to live for oneself?

written by David Ashley

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