|"WHAT AM I DOING HERE?"|
dir. Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky
"What am I doing here? Please tell me." says the old woman. She wants to know why she isn't home with her mother. She wonders if she'll ever go home to be with her mother ever again. And then, "I don't know where I am. I don't know how I got here."
The old woman is in a nursing home, of course. She's not going home. She's there until she dies.
"All around this place are these hills with trees on them and they're so nice to look at," says a fat, seemingly punch-drunk old goodfella from the bed he never seems to leave. He's been institutionalized for most of his life - from foster homes to prison and now a nursing home. A bit of nature, even though it's in the distance, is just what the doctor ordered for a man whose only freedom were those ever-so brief moments when he held a gun in his massive fists while striding into liquor marts, convenience stores or banks to hold them up. At least, that's what we imagine.
The joy those distant hills give him is short-lived. The sentimental symbol of escape into the natural world yields slightly cynical and forced laughter. The hills, he explains, are really piles of garbage that could be stacked no higher and were covered over with sod and seed, resulting in trees sprouting to the heavens from mounds of filth.
"I believe in God. He wants me to lose a little more wright and He's going to get me up walking. I don't pray for nothing. I pray to get out of here." says the old goodfella. "God's got a plan for all of us. Though I'm really not sure what He's got planned for all of us in this nursing home."
His question is no doubt on the minds of most of the nursing home's residents - at least those who have something resembling their faculties. Looking at one resident, a blind, twisted, toothless and bed-ridden old woman, one can only guess what God's plan is for her. Spending a lifetime of rape and abuse at the hands of her brother, a brother who is still allowed supervised visits to the sister he brutalized, one can only imagine what plan God has for her?
And what, God forbid, does she dream about? What will be those final images flashing in her mind before she's enveloped in the darkness and light of death?
The Patron Saints is an unremittingly agonizing documentary film by Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky that focuses its lenses upon the residents of a nursing home for the aged. As harrowing as the experience is, the filmmakers employ a strange amalgam of fly-on-the-wall direct cinema techniques with a dash of cinéma vérité. In the former documentary style, the lives of the inmates are presented without narration, no questions, no overt manipulation and seemingly no intrusion on the part of the filmmakers. To the latter style, however, there are subtle, skillfully engineered aspects to the process in that one can recall nary a single shot that is not stunningly, gorgeously, sumptuously composed.
The filmmakers not only point their cameras in the direction of the inmates. We are shown the dedication and compassion of those who try to make the lives of these people better. And yet, for all these affirmations of man's kindness to man, the filmmakers punctuate many sequences with exterior images of airplanes flying endlessly over the facility, the weeds sprouting like an ocean around the institution itself and yes, those mounds of garbage in the distance, adorned with flora to hide the filth beneath.
And if we do get images of flight, of escape, they're presented from within the back of an ambulance, a motionless body strapped to a gurney, leaving its place of incarceration, its spirit hopefully journeying to some better place.
There's a strong sense that the camera, like those forests touching the skies whilst rooted within the filth of the landfill below, perform a similar service. In fact, I'd say the filmmakers provide a twofold service. The camera, through the eyes of the artists, captures the last days, weeks and/or months of this mass of forgotten humanity - sometimes with humour, but mostly through an unremitting sadness which, in direct cinema terms is completely and utterly unavoidable given the circumstances. Much as we might want to repress it, what the cameras expose is the reality of where ALL of our lives are headed, unless of course we mercifully die before. As life itself is dichotomous, so too is the reality as presented by the film. In a sense, the cameras provide these people, in spite of the aforementioned bleakness and whether they're aware of it or not, a voice and a presence in the outside world. Most importantly, though, the beauty and artistry of the compositions provides a kind of love and compassion - the eyes of the artists deliver a terrible beauty to these peoples' lives and in so doing, force us, the audience, to do the same.
No matter how dire and desperate the final days of these people are, it is finally cinema that speaks for them.
This is the power of movies and ultimately, thanks to the talent and sensitivity of the filmmakers, it is why The Patron Saints is one of the most haunting, moving, original and important documentary portraits of the elderly ever committed to film.
"The Patron Saints" is currently unspooling at Toronto's Royal Cinema via Vagrant Films and will roll out on a platform release prior to a variety of home entertainment formats. It's a big-screen experience. Intimacy on this level deserves more than watching it on a small screen.