In 1974 at the age of seven, I invited several kids from the Brooklyn block where I lived into the wood-paneled basement of my parent’s attached brick house. It was Easter and I had decided to conduct my own Mass of the Resurrection including plain butter cookies to serve as the host, the body of Christ, as well as a small diorama of Jesus’ tomb at the moment of his resurrection. Although at this point in my life such a scenario seems simultaneously sentimental, amusing and queer, I know that at the time it was informed by a deep conviction (or more precisely the conviction of a child) in the belief system of the Catholic church not in terms of dogma but rather in terms of its magic and spectacle. At that time I also had a book of saints which I read over and over again with the secret hope that I was or would become a saint too or at least witness a miracle. I longed for the marks of sainthood on my body, especially hoping to receive the stigmata of the crucified Christ.
Today, I no longer attend church. Yet, I am still fascinated by its magic, spectacle and religious imagery. This fascination is not a component of religious structure or belief. Rather for me, Catholicism is a vessel which for hundreds of years has been invested with the power of countless people who believe in and mark its images and narratives with meaning. For example, a religious painting possesses a power and aura not from God or the church but from the spectators who have imbued it with their energy of belief.
So, how does this personal digression intersect with a wonderful 1993 film entitled Household Saints by Nancy Savoca? The film chronicles the life of an ordinary girl named Theresa (played by the amazing Lili Taylor), the daughter of a butcher, who yearns for Jesus Christ. As a little girl, Theresa becomes obsessed with the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary at Fatima as well as religious artifacts. As a teenager in the 1950’s, Theresa becomes more entranced by the life of Saint Theresa, known as The Little Flower who achieved sainthood by performing ordinary household chores. After her early death, she is perceived as a saint. The narrative and the formal properties of the film (Catholicism is a very cinematic religion) in general allowed me to experience and revel in the religious magic that I had longed for in my childhood. It fulfilled my youthful fantasies of saints, miracles and stigmata as well as the lingering echoes of these same fantasies within my adult life.
The image of Theresa within Household Saints resonated deeply with my childhood Catholic imagination which at first disarmed me academically. After seeing the film for the first time, I did not seek to deconstruct its representations and its narrative in terms of religion, gender and class. I simply enjoyed it for the sensation it produced in terms of my own memory, desire and nostalgia. It reminds me of Susan Sontag’s call for an erotics of art rather than a hermeneutics of art.
My experience of the film was indeed erotic, a evocation which seems particularly suited to religious imagery and narrative, which is always highly infused with sexual feeling. I did not feel the need to interpret the film, but merely allowed it to connect with and wash over me in a way which was extremely pleasurable. A friend once said to me that artistic texts were tools to discuss other things: race, gender, sexuality, etc. Such a position seems to me skewed, particularly when I look at my relationship to Household Saints. I did not want to use this film merely to talk about other things, but rather wanted the film to be a site for my own enjoyment.
However, these “other things” are not irrelevant. I have watched Household Saints several times and I still experience my original feeling of it. Yet, these numerous viewings have allowed me to think about the film in terms of gender and religion. There are moments in the film in which Theresa’s desire to become a saint is demystified and made visible as part of the gender ideology of the Catholic church and the wider culture. As a high school freshmen in Catholic school Theresa wins a essay contest for her work entitled, “Why Communism is the Antichrist.” For her prize she receives a book about the life of Saint Theresa, a woman who “reached” God through housework. Thus, the exteriority of the essay’s subject, despite all its implication in 1950’s Catholic ideology, is awarded with a book which tells Theresa to concentrate on the interior, the “feminine” sphere. The book is not so much a model for sainthood, but a blueprint for the 1950’s housewife.
Similarly, in her senior year of high school Theresa meets a young law student named Leonard. When she describes her love for Saint Theresa, Leonard responds that half the girls in his neighborhood wanted to be the Little Flower. His words deflate the early episodes in Theresa’s life in which her character is visually and narratively distinguished from the other girls around her. Her love and emulation of the Little Flower seems special, genuine and unique. Leonard’s comment reveals the ideological function of this particular saint’s life for the education of 1950’s Catholic school girls. He goes on to say that a woman can possess all that Saint Theresa is through secular means: marrying and serving a man and raising a family. The gender ideology of the church as well as the dominant culture becomes visible in this scene.
Later in the film when Theresa is caring for Leonard both in terms of housework as well as sex, she has a vision of Christ while ironing Leonard’s red and white checked shirt. With a British accent Christ explains why his garment is dirty. Theresa offers to wash it for him. Christ begins to laugh and suddenly (in an amazingly beautiful image) the room is filled with hundreds of red and white checked shirts which appear to radiate light. In contrast to the formal beauty of the image, like an altarpiece painting in a church, the ideological unraveling is clear. Theresa’s actions do not serve Jesus or religion, but mortal men. She does not wash Jesus’ clothing but rather the clothing of Leonard.
Household Saints seems to simultaneously celebrate and dismantle the representations of religion. It revels in the beauty and evocation of religious images, but additionally attempts at points to unravel the ideological work performed by them. At the end of the film, Theresa dies and the viewer is left to wonder was she really a saint or was she simply mentally ill. The duality of the ending mirrors the play of Catholic reverence and irreverence within the film. There is no absolute resolution to Theresa’s character. And while my critical understanding of the film did enhance my pleasure of it, the end of the film, Theresa’s death, brings me back to my original feeling of desire, nostalgia and pleasure. It brings me back to the wood-paneled basement of 1974 and I always cry.