"We have sought to use the reality in front of us as a catalyst for a different kind of cinematic portrait. We were not interested in commenting on the current state of nursing homes or elder care, and we harbor no journalistic aspirations. Instead, our aim has been to make a film that could transcend its specific time and place, while at the same time reflecting our own visions of human fragility [...] We offer up The Patron Saints as a kind of dirge, or an elegy for the changing nature of bodies and minds." " - Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky
Why the title "The Patron Saints" for Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky's re-telling of Allan King's Dying at Grace as a Beckettian tale? Is it exploitative to film these elderly patients as they live out their last days? Can the paralyzed and the schizophrenic really give their consent? How were they even able to get this close to these people and capture this footage? What do the family members think about it?
These are just a few questions that one could ask oneself as one watches the powerful and disturbing The Patron Saints.
The patrons of the title are residents of an American nursing home (where the directors spent five years filming) and the Christian saint reference implies a certain exceptional holiness about them. But instead of any divine acts or inspiration what we see is frailty, illness and what might be dementia. These play out in a series of vignettes: an old lady kisses the hand of a doll and sings “I got you baby,” people's voices that wouldn't even sound right even if they were spoken by CGI monsters, a man that yells "No Good" in Hungarian throughout the night, the film's narrator Jim who makes wisecracks about the others, and finally even a corpse that is brought out to go to a mortuary.
What we see is less in the King or Wiseman fly-on-the-wall territory of documentary but instead in realm of the experimental social-documentary of a Donigan Cumming with its shared black humor or the world of the marginal like Denis Côté's Carcasses. What we are seeing are people in a state of crisis and how the hospice medical institution is trying to improve their condition. There are people with troubled personal backgrounds and others going through physical and mental trauma. What Cassidy and Shatzky are doing is not only trying to document these people (honor their memory etc), but through close-ups and portraiture of the grotesque patients the film aims for a more surrealistic tone that is even elevated by the films sporadic use of opera and classical music. Which all contributes to the films uncomfortable and challenging tone.
The Patron Saints also shares many thematic similarities with other recent Canadian films. There is a funny conversation between two people, a man and a white-haired older woman. “What am I doing here?” she asks. "I don’t know," they both answer. This scene is at first comic as one assume it has a staged quality but as it goes on it slowly becomes troubling when you realize it is not staged. The older woman could be seen as the logical conclusion of what would happen to main character of Kazik Radwanski's Princess Margaret Blvd. While the medicinal scenes of a doctor going around visiting the different patients and distributing medicine is similar to the subject of Antoine Bourges' East Hastings Pharmacy. And finally where in Ashley McKenzie's most recent short-film When You Sleep she continues her exploration of people experiencing emotional crises (dealing with a fighting, young couple in Nova Scotia), one must return to her previous short Rhonda's Party of a failed birthday party. If in both films, Patron Saints and Rhonda's Party, there is a party in a nursing home with music, balloons and a band; this suggest that the fact that people are this old is worth celebrating, and that life and people are incredibly important. But this point remains bittersweet as we know that it doesn't last long.