Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

14 May 2007

Too Personal

I know I complained the other day about Fellini's Amarcord. I called it too much a meditation on the auteur's childhood or something like that. What I meant by that is not that Amarcord is a bad film, really. But there are links, I think, in a film that is ultra-personal like Amarcord that I am not able to make in my living room, not having lived through the same childhood myself.

The problems of a director's too-personal drama being put into a film are multiplied with Dito Montiel's A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. The film starts off shaky and continues in fashion. The problem, to my mind, is the plot. It's an all-too familiar story of growing up in New York amid the rough-and-tumble crowd and having to decide—for whatever reason—to leave it. I didn't mind this so much, except the guilt of having left seems to consume Montiel's main character, and I could never figure out why. He's made a really good movie about what a crazy, difficult life he had, and he makes a very strong case for leaving it. Yet the character's big decision is all dependent on this guilt. The climax, in fact, is completely linked with how he was wrong to leave. I was totally lost.

The cast is uniformly good—Channing Tatum, Shia Lebeouf, Robert Downey Jr., Rosario Dawson, Dianne Weist and Chazz Palmintieri—and Montiel (who wrote the script and directed this story of his own life) has a lot of intriguing formal flourishes. Some of these work, and some of them don't. He's certainly seen his share of Spike Lee movies. In one of his best segments (an homage to Lee), each of the kids we've been watching for the last forty-five minutes introduces him- or herself. The best part of it goes like this:
Diane: My name is Diane and I want to fuck.
Giuseppe: My name is Giuseppe and I'm Antonio's brother.
Jenny: My name is Jenny and everyone's a fucking joke.
Antonio: I'm a fucking piece of shit. That's what I am.
It's a wonderful cinematic moment and that final one is simply heartbreaking.

This is A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints at its most intriguing. More often, though, Montiel's playing with form feels like it's only serving to cover up the fact that this is a story we've all heard before.