A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints

A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints

***

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"You're not going anywhere, Dito."

This is a phrase that Monty Montiel (Chazz Palminteri) repeats like a doom-laden mantra to his teenage son Dito (Shia LaBeouf) during the long hot summer of 1986. And sure enough, Dito's neighbourhood in Astoria, Queens is an insular, impoverished dead-end where "things don't get fuckin' better", as Dito's friend Nerf (Peter Tambakis) so eloquently puts it - and usually the only ways out are via drugs, a police van or a hearse.

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Monty, however, is wrong about his son. In 2005, when the film opens, the adult Dito (Robert Downey Jr) has managed to become a successful literary figure in faraway LA, giving public readings from his New York memoirs (which are entitled A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints). Yet this film is less concerned with where Dito has gone (or, indeed, how he got there) than with where he has come from. Dito may have turned his back on his friends and family long ago, but he is still haunted by his memories of that fateful, formative summer of 86 - and so an unexpected call from his mother (Dianne Wiest) prompts him to go back home for the first time in two decades, where he will catch up, take stock, confront some ghosts and reconcile himself to his roots.

Intertwining the story of Dito's return home with flashbacks to his troubled history there, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is two brands of bitter nostalgia rolled into one. The eighties-set scenes that dominate the film are so energetic they seem almost to be dripping with their characters' sweat, machismo and electrifying fatalism - but unfortunately this vibrancy also serves to highlight the contrasting torpor of the present-day scenes. None of Downey Jr's immense talent as an actor is enough to make his lugubrious character engaging, and whenever he is on screen, viewers will long, much like Dito himself, for the refuge of his more colourful past. Like Cinema Paradiso before it, A Guide to Recognizing your Saints is all about the kids – and the adult scenes, though providing the film with structural ballast, also weigh it down.

Despite the fact that the protagonist of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints shares his name and provenance with the film's first-time writer-director Dito Montiel (who draws vaguely on his own 2003 memoir, also entitled A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), the film is 'autobiographical' only in the loosest sense of the word, with all its characters, including Dito himself, being at best fictionalised composites of real people, liberally distorted to suit the exigencies of cinematic drama.

The result is a film in which the 'saints' who have shaped Dito (both character and filmmaker) are not just his old pals from the 'hood, but also the countless other films about life and death on New York's mean streets, from Mean Streets itself to the likes of Saturday Night Fever, Do The Right Thing, Summer Of Sam, Kids and Raising Victor Vargas.

It is not that dumb-but-tough alpha-male Antonio (Channing Tatum), his disturbed brother Giussepe (Adam Scarimbolo), outsider newboy Mike O'Shea (Martin Compston), and Dito's sensible girlfriend Laurie (Melonie Diaz) are not compelling figures - they are, as are all their players' performances - but it is difficult to escape the impression that we have seen them all before, while the situations in which they find themselves - escalating territorial disputes, loyalty under pressure, the father-son conflict - are no less familiar.

What rescues A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints from bland conventionality is Montiel's bravura approach to direction. Sometimes the film's tempo jostles and jerks to the characters' swaggering braggadocio, at others it slows right down, so that even the spectacle of Monty suffering a seizure can strike an impossibly lyrical note. The switches from one time-period to another seem effortlessly fluid, while characters' lines are occasionally presented in staggered voice-over, or even as text, as well as in the more customary dialogue form.

Such arresting experimentalism makes Montiel's debut an impressive showcase of different styles and moods, capturing visually the clash and bustle of New York's melting pot - it is just a pity that, amid all this sound and fury, the overall story is, to quote Monty, not going anywhere…

Reviewed on: 06 Feb 2007
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A man haunted by a summer from his past, returns to his old stamping ground to confront old ghosts.
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