A few years ago, filmmaker Nancy Savoca came to believe that one of her movies had been lost forever.

Producer Ira Deutchman, a personal friend of Savoca’s, had recently requested a print of “Household Saints” to screen for his students at Columbia University. The multigenerational story about an Italian Catholic family in New York City enjoyed indie acclaim upon its 1993 release, including four stars from Roger Ebert, after which it became a modest hit on VHS and in syndication.

But “Household Saints” didn’t make it to the DVD era, and when Savoca requested access to one of the two prints housed at the UCLA film archive, she learned that both had been damaged beyond repair. “That was the worst day of my life,” she told IndieWire during a recent interview.

Thus began a mad search. Savoca and her husband, co-writer Richard Guay, put on their detective hats. They contacted the movie’s various backers to see if anyone might have a copy, lest “Household Saints” become another title that disappeared into the ether.

It turned out that the film’s rights had reverted to an investor who’s no longer alive, prompting still more panic. Fortunately, Savoca contacted his estate’s lawyers, and voila: She finally located a print. 

“Household Saints” has since been restored and, courtesy of Kino Lorber, will play in select theaters over the coming weeks (the film opens in New York on Friday and expands to additional cities throughout January and February, including Philadelphia, Seattle, Austin, and Toronto.) Anyone who missed its ’90s run or wants to revisit a relic from the apex of American independent filmmaking now has the chance to revel in an ensemble that boasts Tracey Ullman, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lili Taylor, and a handsomely bespectacled Michael Imperioli. 

“I was right on the verge of figuring out what kind of actor I wanted to be,” D’Onofrio told IndieWire. “All of my friends that were working were on their way to becoming leading men and women, and I kind of saw my career as a character actor’s career. The part in ‘Household Saints’ attracted me because all the characters were such intense people, all for different reasons, so it really suited the kind of acting I wanted to do. After that period, I really didn’t go after leading parts anymore.” 

For Savoca, the whole project had been a long time coming. She read the Francine Prose novel on which it’s based in college. While working at a production company that made kids’ entertainment, she wrote a 30-page treatment — but the company’s vibe was more after-school specials, which “Household Saints” is very much not.

“Household Saints”

In film school, Savoca wrote Prose a “love letter” gushing about the book and how she wanted to adapt it. After her first two features, 1989’s “True Love” and 1991’s “Dogfight” (also starring Taylor), won raves, Savoca turned her dream into a reality. 

“Household Saints” begins, in flash forward, with one of the cinema’s most inspired setups. The patriarch of an Italian family sums up a bit of neighborhood lore by saying, “And it happened, by the grace of God, that Joseph Santangelo won his wife in a pinochle game.”

The Joseph he cites is D’Onofrio, and he did in fact win his shy, dutiful wife (Ullman) in a card tournament during a sweltering 1940s summer. Their romance gets off to a tentative start but blossoms into a lifelong devotion. Savoca cast Ullman because she knew the comedian, already famous for “The Tracey Ullman Show,” would imbue Catherine with an inner strength that’s vital to the movie’s shifting perspectives. 

As “Household Saints” continues, it morphs into the story of Joseph and Catherine’s daughter, Teresa (Lili Taylor), a Jesus freak who vows to become a nun in hopes of achieving canonization like her divine namesake. Teresa’s parents are secular by comparison, and though they support their daughter’s pursuits, Joseph and Catherine are gobsmacked by the intensity of her allegiance. She believes that tidiness and purity will make her one of God’s VIPs.

“Household Saints”

Taylor, whose kind eyes and wide smile lend themselves to Teresa’s piety, won a much-deserved Independent Spirit Award for her performance. (D’Onofrio was also nominated, and so was Savoca and Guay’s screenplay.) 

“I understood that story,” Savoca said. “My calling was filmmaking. I came from an old-school family with an immigrant Sicilian father. He did not want me to enter filmmaking. She left home to meet Jesus; I left home to go to film school. There are parallels: You want to be something, and your culture is fighting you on that. The humor in the film is there to support the seriousness of what a calling is — a calling to be yourself.” 

Casting D’Onofrio and Taylor as kin was a bold choice considering they’d played love interests in “Mystic Pizza” five years earlier. Taylor had already been hired when D’Onofrio first read the script, so he was able to picture her as Teresa from the outset. “I thought it was pretty funny, actually,” D’Onofrio said of their reunion. “It’s definitely weird and cool at the same time. It couldn’t have been a better part for her at that time. Nancy had this ‘I don’t care what people think’ attitude.” 

“Household Saints”

What Savoca does care about is the movie’s shelf life. She knew it was too offbeat to transcend art-house demographics, but she was proud to see it reach more people on home video throughout the ’90s.

Now, “Household Saints” gets a second shot at its own canonization. And Savoca isn’t done with restoration efforts. In 2022, she, Deutchman, and Guay — along with “American Psycho” director Mary Harron and others — co-founded Missing Movies, an ad hoc organization dedicated to locating and preserving lost film materials. 

“In hindsight, we were incredibly lucky,” Savoca said. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s, things were very disruptive. I can tell you now, as an older person, that I really enjoy living on that edge, I realize. I see opportunity, not just for myself as someone who’s a little bit outside the box, but anybody outside the box, which is the culture that I enjoy. We were at a stage very similar to the stage we’re in right now. It’s a birth. There’s something new coming, and it’s not going to look like whatever came before.”

“Household Saints” opens in New York on Friday, January 12 at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles on Friday, January 26 at American Cinematheque.

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