A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
2006Director: Dito Montiel
Cast: Rosario Dawson, Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBeouf
he nature of remembrance is a bittersweet one. For many of us, the passing of time is impossible to come to terms with, like trying to level yourself in quicksand. This beguiling story, adapted from the memoirs of Dito Montiel, seamlessly moves between the present and past, exploring the journey taken from childhood to adulthood, and from denial to acceptance. For Dito Montiel, extraction from the landslides of time is a painful departure; in fact, it’s the hardest thing of all.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Dito Montiel, a middle-aged man hidden safely in LA. Returning to the blistering streets of New York to see his dying father, he is forced to re-live the threatening life he once led. The film begins as Dito attempts to collect his thoughts, trying to find the most appealing way to present his memories to us. Despite the narrator’s attempts, the insuppressible patterns of memory take over, creating a layered and entwined narrative. As a young man (Shia LaBeouf), Dito abandoned his family to live in LA, a decision that broke many hearts: that of his parents, his fraternal buddies and his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Laurie. It’s this sense of failure and betrayal that he must face on his return as an adult. Concurrently, the audience discovers the mounting pressures that caused the youth to flee. The violence and abusive culture of the slums were too much for him; the hot, palpable imprisonment he felt was overwhelming. As Montiel (the director) builds each story carefully into an almost unbearable emotional climax, Montiel (the character), comes together as a whole.
The much gentler Beautiful Girls also deals with the return of a character that bound together a time and a place. Dito, like the protagonist of Demme’s film, experiences the regret of a refugee from the past. Nothing changes but the seasons, these films tell us – however, the returning character is resented for having progressed while his past stagnates. The act of returning is a sort of time-travel. When you walk the streets of your past, the traces still remain: you remember where stores used to be, pass a familiar face you don’t really know, or instinctively avoid a jagged paving stone that’s no longer there. In A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, the bearing of the past on the emotional climate of the present is explicitly discussed rather than merely stated. There are inspired moments of dislocated images and audio, of characters repeating themselves off-screen or images resetting themselves. Such techniques build a mood of consideration, searching for clarity through recollection and repetition. Something personal is being explored, a rare example of intimacy in a notoriously remote medium.
Dito’s father, Monty (Palminteri), who suffers from seizures, develops a strange fixation with the primitive reasoning of his son’s wild friend Antonio, trusting him to ‘make everything okay’. Monty’s inability to face up to the complexities of the world, hoping that a kid can make the world right with the unswerving logic of a bloody baseball bat, is clearly one of the things Dito needed to leave behind. However, on his return, his mother (Wiest) tells him that his father loved him with everything he had and was just scared of letting go. All the emotional density of family life, the layers of feeling and action embraced and regretted, can be found in this scene. I can’t recall a more complex and interesting father and son relationship in recent years. Dito is scared of becoming Monty, yet also realizes that any strength he may have derives directly from this resolute, admirable bastard.
It’s hard to comment on the performances of any of the actors as they are so superbly felt and naturalistic. I’m reluctant to delve into them, not wanting to meddle with their authenticity. The director/writer has a fine ear and the sharp dialogue is consistent for each character. Even the most minor roles are given space to breathe, a shot at significance. In fact, although heavily stylized in its visuals and audio, the emotional pitch of the film reminded me of the modest naturalism of George Washington or that wonderful first half hour of The Thin Red Line, where the actors seem to be working through the instincts of the story rather than the tricks and traps they have picked up during the course of their professional lives.
The harmonious composition of the film is a wonder. This is Montiel’s filmmaking debut and his achievements should be bellowed for all to hear. Interestingly, Downey Jr. was slated to direct but he became too involved in other projects and suggested to producer Trudie Styler that Montiel take over. Occasionally, despite the various legitimate demands and experience necessary to helm a film, a story only needs to be understood by the teller for it to come through intact. Styler gave Montiel a week to make a six-minute film imbued with the feeling and style he would give to the feature. Montiel filmed Downey Jr. with some kids in the street and successfully convinced her of his ability. Credit should go to Styler for taking a risk and not standing in the way of things.
Any good piece of filmmaking should make you feel like you have learned something, even if it only reminds you of something you should already know. Something about the film rings ineffably true and Dito’s poignant summation hits home. No matter who you become, you’re still largely made up of who you were: ‘in the end, I left everything and everyone. But no-one, no-one has ever left me.’
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is now available on DVD.