Over a period of five years, filmmakers Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky followed the residents in an unnamed American nursing home to create a unflinching look at the inevitable tragedy that is senescence. In The Patron Saints, they provide no facts or figures, no last names and no diagnoses. Instead, one of the younger inmates, a disabled man named Jim with a wry sense of humour, plays narrator, introducing us to his fellow patients as the camera lingers on a confused face or a leathery limb, a beige corridor or a kindly nurse.
Mainly, this observational realism serves the filmmakers exceedingly well, creating a humane, almost elegiac atmosphere, with occasional flashes of black humour, all of it heightened by a soundtrack of choral music that culminates in Arvo Part’s ethereal version of My Heart’s in the Highlands.
We do not need to know what specific form of dementia plagues Florence to understand the nature of her repeated queries “What am I doing here? How long have I been here?” and to feel anguish when she quietly but quite lucidly announces that if she can’t get out of here, she will take a stocking and strangle herself. (All one might wonder is how such a person can possibly give informed consent to being filmed.)
Occasionally, however, Cassidy and Shatzky overreach: Images of the nearby garbage dump establish a heavy-handed metaphor out of keeping with the rest of the film, while the lack of any additional information about the patients occasionally denies viewers their empathy. In particular, Jim’s fate at the end of the film remains frustratingly mysterious.