starring Genevieve Buechner, Emanuel Arruda, Brigitte Bako, Krista Bridges
written and directed by Terrance Odette
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Saint Monica is a film with such an unshakeable belief in its naïve vision of the world that it somehow surpasses that vision's obvious failure to reflect reality. While it would normally be hard to stomach its arbitrary and clichéd depiction of a "multicultural" milieu, to say nothing of its watered-down treatment of homelessness, director Terrance Odette's total commitment to his vague assumptions and pseudo-politics make the film an oddly touching experience. Odette has lavished such care and gentleness on his threadbare ideas that you don't really mind its frequent lapses in judgement, and as it's acted as well as can be expected with the often ludicrous material it just manages to squeak under the wire as a film that is "not without merit."
This is the saga of Monica (Genevieve Beuchner), a ten-year-old Portuguese girl fixated on things spiritual: she plays with angel and Blessed Virgin Mary figurines the way other kids play at Harry Potter, and her greatest ambition is to play the role of an angel in her old church's annual procession. Unfortunately, she's been moved out of the neighbourhood by her harried "ethnic" single-mother (Brigitte Bako), a matter compounded by the presence of her lethargic uncle who likes to get rid of her so that he might watch videos in peace. Little wonder Monica would rather ascend into heaven than deal with her lot.
Left without a place in the procession, she lifts a massive pair of wings from the church's costume department as compensation--only to lose them on the streetcar home. A little searching reveals them to have landed them in the hands of a homeless woman named, annoyingly, Mary (Clare Coulter); Mary spends her time reciting Hail Marys, collecting religious ephemera and 'miraculously' crossing busy overpasses while clad in the wings, making Monica's planned extraction of them a bit of a challenge. The burning question: will she get the wings back in time to save her bacon with the procession's suspicious overseer? Or will she see a higher purpose for the wings than mere ecclesiastical wardrobe?
Okay, so it's not such a burning question, and it's accompanied by some rather feeble attempts at both slice-of-life realism and religious fervour. Whole tomes could be written on the film's typically Canadian opting for transcendence over the material plane, but Odette seems pleasantly oblivious--despite his professed contemplation of entering the priesthood, his film is tragically inarticulate in expressing religious feeling. This is partly due to his (also typically Canadian) non-approach to montage, using the same old master shots as everyone else in the Great White North; as he refuses to create a sequence or sequence-shot that could evoke the inner feelings of his miserable and yearning heroine, he just makes her seem like a girl with a "different" approach to playtime.
Matters are compounded by Odette's laughable evocation of a Portuguese-Canadian family: he rings all the hoary bells of single mothers with evil harassing ex-husbands who complain about their dead-end jobs and take it out on the kids. No doubt such situations exist, but the people involved usually have a few more dimensions to their personalities than this standard example of armchair social work. One gets neither a sense of Portuguese culture nor of any personality kinks that would make mother and uncle individuals--we are simply supposed to take mother's by-now-familiar trials as gospel and ask no questions as to the soundness of Odette's dubious sympathy. This kind of false consciousness may look good to the out-of-touch culture-crats who sign the checks, but we are entitled to something a little more nuanced than what Saint Monica has to offer.
And yet, everything that goes wrong with this movie makes it somehow go right. Unlike its Canadian brethren, there's nothing especially bleak or tortured about this movie; it simply trundles on its merry, unexamined way, imploring us as if with intertitles to thrill to its strangely innocuous spectacle. Its oblivious approach--oblivious, that is, to the implications of the subject matter--allows the film to transcend its factual failures by turning itself into a well-lit episode of "Degrassi Junior High". There are no rough edges in this movie, even when for credibility's sake it could really use them; the lighting is soft and pleasant, and even the actors, Beuchner especially, seem to have been chosen for their rounded features and soft bodies. And in draining all of the angst out of what would normally (and sensibly) be seen as charged material, Odette's film ceases to be realistic and turns into a weird, fuzzyheaded creation that is at least fitfully fascinating. Originally published: December 20, 2002.