A recent cartoon in The New Yorker depicts a glamorous woman telling her friend, "Gays and lesbians aren’t a threat to the sanctity of my marriage. It’s all the straight women who sleep with my husband." Abstracted into an election-year faultline in the United States, gay marriage becomes flesh and blood in the new documentary Saints & Sinners, bringing the "issue" back to the actuality of what it always was—a right of passage as intimate as it is frightening.
Directed by English-born director Abigail Honor and produced by her husband Yan Vizinberg, Saints & Sinners premiered at Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York where it earned accolades earlier this year. Since then, the film has gone on to win the Best Documentary Award at the Q-Cinema Film Festival at Fort Worth, Texas, and it is now showing in major cities throughout the US.
Seamlessly edited and paced with the inviting charm of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the film is a low-key departure from heavy-handed blog-u-mentaries on highly politicized issues. Its lasting contribution will be its depiction of how religious faith intersects with emotional fulfillment.
Taking as its subjects the love lives of two gay men, the movie tracks the months, weeks and days that lead up to the couple’s planned matrimony, to be officiated by a free-thinking Catholic priest and held in an Episcopal Church in New York City. The Catholic Church, of course, does not recognize gay marriage, and its passive-aggressive opposition makes the story compelling.
The two protagonists, Edward DeBonis and Vincent Maniscalco, are devout parishioners struggling to maintain their lifelong identities as Catholics while their Church turns its back on them. Through this, they never give in to bitterness or to proselytizing. The more stinging responses to their Church’s intransigence are left to their friends and to progressive clergy members who head up their own parish in New York. And these frank commentators are as articulate as they are strong-willed.
Despite the incendiary politics of gay marriage in the U.S., there’s a welcome intimacy and lightness to Saints & Sinners, thanks in no small part to the talkative Mr. DeBonis, whose droll humor and complicated personal history keep the couple’s story from being consumed by self-regard. Commentaries from a range of family members and assorted friends offer testimonials into the unpredictable dynamics that snap and crackle behind the scenes of a wedding. And it confronts viewers with contemporary questions that transcend gay rights, as in, to what degree do the official sanctions of external authorities validate an already well-established intimate relationship?
More subtly, the film generates quiet rage at a country obsessed with "preserving" the "institution" even as it is hell-bent on making it impossible for willing people to marry. As DeBonis and Maniscalco struggle to keep the train on the tracks, their efforts highlight the centuries-old, self-destructive homophobia of a Catholic Church that is every year threatened by civil lawsuits and diminished attendance. And it’s not just the Church that offers resistance. Saints & Sinners takes some needed dramatic turns when the couple find that their "liberal" and "progressive" beacon The New York Times has serious reservations itself about running their marriage notice on its society page. Closer to home, some family members become less than enthusiastic about the appropriateness of the approaching ceremony.
Enlivened at key moments by the streetwise milieus of New York City, Saints & Sinners shows how willful people transform their social obstacles into spiritual achievement. In this way, the film is a cinematic sacrament in itself.