A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS
Director/Screenwriter: Dito Montiel
Executive Producers: Sting, Bobby Sager
Producers: Linda Moran, Rene Bastian
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Shia LeBoeuf, Rosario Dawson, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest
U.S.A., 2005, 90 min.
SUNDANCE 2006 Directing Award Winner
*A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is based on director Dito Montiel's youth during the mid-eighties in the tough neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. All his old friends have ended up dead, as junkies, or in prison; Dito is the proverbial man who got out. For him, the "saints" are the folks he remembers, the ones he left behind. For better or worse, they made him who he is today.
Just the way memories can flood consciousness, Montiel uses the same motif to flood the screen with his stories. The past gets layered upon the present, and the film comes to life. The performances are real because the characters' words are real; they've been said before. The strength of the film isn't looking back through a nostalgic, Vaselined lens; instead, Montiel infuses the memories with both the exhilaration and pain of youth.
The outstanding cast members are dedicated to finding every nuance and truth. They capture the frenetic quality of the time, not only in the streets and on the rooftops but also in the bustling family kitchen. Montiel's New York is steamy with humidity, cooking, and adolescent sexuality. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is an honest account of a bittersweet return to a neighborhood that isn't the same and never will be again.
*Summary by John Cooper, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
This was the best film I saw this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Though its plot has similarities to the Grand Jury and Audience Award winner this year, Quinceanera, I feel that Saints has everything that Quinceanera is missing. It's a flashback story, exploring the memories of the main character. I like how the long flashback segments, which comprise the majority of the film, are told in a unique manner that distinguishes them from the 'modern' timeframe of the rest of the film. Violent or harrowing scenes are sometimes shown in silent pulses, as if the main character can't bear to remember the sounds and horrible words that accompany some of his memories. Key bits of dialogue in the flashbacks are often repeated, as if the main character wants to remind himself of the importance of those words. The acting is excellent, especially by the three leads actors: Shia La Boeuf as the young 'Dito', Robert Downey Jr. as the older 'Dito', and the young actor who plays the hot-headed young 'Antonio'. Also, Chazz Palminteri should be mentioned for his emotional portrayal as Dito's father, young and old. Where did this actor go for the past few years? I had forgotten how good Palminteri could be when he has a juicy part to tear into.
The complicated relationship between Dito, Dito's father, and Antonio, is the centerpiece of the film, and watching all those actors, young and old versions, play off each other is wonderful. Dito's father loves Dito more than he can ever express it, yet he seems to adopt Antonio as a son when Dito moves away from the family to start a career in California. Watching Robert Downey Jr. come back home to reconcile with his father in the film's final scenes ties the whole film together, and brought tears to most of the members of the audience.
I love the films that have a director at the helm confident enough to put in subtle and poignant moments without overplaying them. The relationship that develops between Dito and his girlfriend, Laurie, is a tough and teasing back and forth where neither character reveals their true feelings about each other until late in the film. There is a beautiful little moment when young Dito is climbing up the ladder to Laurie's window, when Laurie is sure that Dito is too busy climbing to notice her. For just a second, her tough face drops, and her face scrunches up into a big smile of happiness and anticipation. As soon as Dito comes back into sight, Laurie's tough face comes back. But in that one moment, we, as the audience, perfectly understand how much Laurie is invested in her relationship with Dito. What a fantastic way to visually suggest her depth of feeling without boring us with unnecessary exposition!
There is only one major fault I have with this film and that is with one especially egregious use of stunt casting. That's why I have to drop the film down to 4 1/2 Groars. I can handle Robert Downey Jr. and Rosario Dawson as the older Dito and Laurie, because they are introduced early in the film, and they have numerous scenes where they are allowed to demonstrate their similarity with their younger counterparts. However, in the finale of the film, Robert Downey Jr. visits a prison in New York to finally come to peace with Antonio. The prison door opens and the older Antonio walks out, played by . . . Eric Roberts. It is just too much. Young Antonio is played by this fiery and passionate unknown actor, and we are supposed to accept that he grows up to be somebody who looks like Eric Roberts?! Why would you ruin the goodwill created throughout the film by comparing a talented unknown actor with a B-list actor who hasn't appeared in a film since the '80s. It really disrupted the reality of the film for me, right when I should have been coming to terms with the whole structure of the film. On paper, the ending is a great tie-up for the whole piece; however the stunt casting leached away some of that power.
Other than that mistake, this was the best film I saw at the festival. Everyone I talked to about the film felt the same; the post-film reaction was quite extraordinary. I hope it gets distributed at some point this year, because I would love to see this again in theaters.