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Pinochle is a card game of doubling. Two teams of two play with two decks of cards in two rounds; derived from the German word “binokel,” the name literally means “two eyes.” You earn points in pinochle through matching valuable sequences of cards within your hand – sometimes referred to as “marriages” – and then guessing how many points your team might have overall. The trick – two tricks, actually – is that you don’t get to see your teammate’s cards, and you will have to trade four cards with your partner before the final points are calculated. Pinochle is a game of mutually assured trust.
While these rules are not necessary to understand Nancy Savoca’s long out-of-print 1993 film, Household Saints, the game’s presence in this 1940s marriage story is essential to its framing of love as nothing but a big card game. A roll of the dice – a leap of faith.
Joining the ranks of a stellar Revivals lineup this year at the New York Film Festival, Household Saints is back in circulation thanks to the efforts of Missing Movies, an non-organization that seeks to “rescue” lost or out-of-print films from the morass of copyright obstacles that prevents countless works from being viewed by modern audiences. Since 2021, Missing Movies has been helping filmmakers locate and reobtain distribution rights from their original owners (often defunct studios and corporations) so as to legally release a new restoration into theaters, on physical disc, or streaming. Previous titles have included Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (now available via the Criterion Collection) and, now, Savoca’s Household Saints.
This notion of reviving an old story to be retold in a modern period is, in fact, one of the central subjects of Household Saints. In modern ’90s NYC, three generations of women have lunch in the family home when the eldest matriarch remembers a story of a friend from the neighborhood – one of those mythic stories that seem impossible at the end of the century. A delirious story that feels ripped from the tabloids or, more contemporarily, something like clickbait: “And it happened by the grace of God that Joseph Santangelo won his wife in a card game.”
Flashing back to 1949, Savoca traces the ripples of this epochal pinochle game on two Italian-American families through the postwar era and the end of the millennium. Nearly all of the film exists within this nesting narrative space – to quote director Sarah Polley, within the stories we tell. The juxtaposition between these oral traditions in the Age of the Bomb is an animating force of the film’s drama. What can these stories offer us now? Are they even true? God is dying, and the twentieth century seems to be killing it, what are you supposed to tell your children?
Household Saints would appear, at first, to be autobiographical, if not for the fact it’s an adaptation of Francine Prose’s 1981 novel of the same name. However, taken in context with Savoca’s newly restored NYU thesis film, “Renata” – also playing at the festival – a continuum of personal history begins to emerge.
Shot on 16mm black-and-white, “Renata” has no flashbacks, existing entirely within an urgent moment of a young mother’s life. Wrestling with the pressures of her cultural expectations, Renata (Marianne Leone) debates how to tell her Catholic mother that she’s getting a divorce – a severe violation in the eyes of their church. All of the familial history that’s explored in Household Saints exists only in the negative space of “Renata,” as offscreen stories from the Old World which had surely vanished by the time of the film’s 1980s setting, just when the threat of the Bomb was rearing its head again in the American memory. An indictment on the diminishing returns of folk wisdom in the face of contemporary malaise, Savoca’s two films dare to suggest that some stories are stifling in their rigid predictability and absurd morals.
No, eating sausages won’t cure your cancer, but perhaps there is an afterlife that speaks to us from the beyond after all, telling us new stories to decode and interpret. Cycles that imitate the past without quite recreating it. Currents and revivals. Ancient myths that trade between generations like cards in a pinochle game, reshuffled and retold whenever there’s time to pass.
Because stories have meaning whether or not they’re true – that’s their power. And Household Saints is willing to entertain wildly unfolding stories for the sake of the storyteller as much as the audience. In this case, the next generation, sitting on their mother’s lap in the final shot, patiently absorbing a story they don’t yet understand but will remember as something to tell their own children and grandchildren.
Household Saints is being distributed by Milestone Films and Kino Lorber.