Dito Montiel’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006) is serious stuff. I watched it last Wednesday to write this piece and it’s been turning around in my brain ever since. It’s now Friday morning and my piece should be up by now. So I’m just going to share some thoughts. It will be none too structured and I ask your forgiveness in advance. After you click, we’ll discuss the plot, the editing, and then we’ll take on the title.
Recognizing Your Saintsis an adaptation of a book of the same name by the same gent who directed the film. Not only that, the protagonist of the film is named Dito Montiel. I don’t want to assume that it’s a true story but it very well could be. The film tells of Dito’s (Shia LaBoeuf) coming of age in Astoria, Queens, NY during the 1980s through a series of flashbacks that slowly explain why grown up Dito (Robert Downey, Jr) is so afraid of going back to Queens. Supporting characters are Dito’s epileptic father Monty; his crew Giuseppe, Antonio and Nerf; his girlfriend Laurie; and a Scottish kid named Mike O’Shea who just moved to the neighbourhood. The introduction of Mike leads Dito to think beyond his neighbourhood and he starts to dream big. As the seed of this dream is implanted in his head, various fates befall everyone around him. Dito returns to the neighbourhood in the present day to take his sick father to the hospital and must reconcile how he managed to save himself from all the things that happened to his friends. The film is extraordinarily difficult and you can’t help but weep at certain points.
Crucial to the film’s power is its editing style. After a few minutes spent in the present day at the beginning of the film, the first flashback we get opens with young Dito looking directly into the camera. He says, “My name’s Dito. And I’m going to leave everyone in this film.” Other characters in the film have similar moments, like Antonio walking towards the camera, looking directly at it saying, “I’m a piece of shit.” To avoid any spoilage, take my word that it occurs somewhat frequently. Furthermore, there is a significant moment in the film where Dito and Mike O’Shea are on the subway train talking about leaving and seeing what else is out there. The sound is asynchronous, that is, what is heard does not match what the mouth is showing. You first wonder if there’s something wrong with the film, but it’s intentional and confusing. These techniques – direct address and asynchronous sound – are fairly common Brechtian distanciation devices, named for the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht felt that art had the power to inspire social change, if only the audience was not allowed to get emotionally connected. The audience had to connect to the art from a distance so that they could take the social criticism found in it and go forth into the world to change it. Crucial scenes feature these distancing devices despite their emotional power. If Montiel is using these devices, what is the social critique? Or if not a social critique, what does Montiel want us to think about?
I think it is appropriate here to turn to the title of the film. The title of the film is never specifically referenced in the film nor is it entirely clear the relevance of the title to the film. I wonder if these moments when characters directly address the audience are cinematic stained-glass windows. Are these moments when we are told to recognize that these people are saints? But these characters are hardly saintly, by any traditional definitions. Or is it that these people were the saints who made sacrifices so that Dito could leave town and escape what would befall him? If the film functions as a guide, that means we should be able to insert ourself into it to make it relevant to our own experiences. Perhaps these distancing moments are supposed to be the junctures when we ask ourselves what we would do in that situation. Whatever it is, the title ensures there’s always more to ask of the film than just the narrative events.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saintsis confounding. It is emotionally crippling and yet it is tremendously hard to “get into” the film. The glimpses into it that you do get are profoundly difficult and you do find yourself rooting for Dito. But the characters are still so far away. The story is rather boilerplate, but the way the film works is a testament to the power of unique storytelling.