It is something of a commonplace amongst theologians that if God did not exist, humankind would have to invent Him – but The Lives of the Saints offers a far bleaker message: if God were not dead, someone would have to kill Him.
On the mean streets of Green Lanes, everything is kept in a delicate balance. Small-time gangster Mr Karva (James Cosmo) governs through violence and terror, while his ambitious stepson Othello (David Leon) keeps the peace. Hairdresser Tina (Emma Pierson) goes out with Othello but also gives Karva a hand when he needs it, while spineless, disturbed Emilio (Bronson Webb) stays hidden in Othello’s shadow.
Roadrunner (Daon Bruni) never stops running everybody’s errands, the grieving mother Christella (Gillian Kearney) makes everybody’s food, and Father Daniel (Marc Warren) sorts the community’s spiritual requirements. Like pieces on a chessboard, each has their rle to play in the order of things, even if none is happy – but when into their midst comes a strange, sickly child (Sam MacLintock) with miraculous powers to predict the future and grant people’s innermost wishes, the paradise that he begins to create in North London soon turns to hell as Karva and his associates are bedevilled with anger, jealousy, greed and madness.
Make of Guy Ritchie’s Revolver what you will, but at least it dared to do something different with that stalest of British genres, the gangster flick – a genre that Ritchie himself had helped both to elevate and to exhaust with his earlier films. The Lives of the Saints is in similarly experimental vein, using the typical furniture of the low-life crime caper as the background for something altogether more allegorical – a modern-day Passion Play. For, like Jesus of Montreal before it, The Lives of the Saints inserts a biblical Messiah into an unexpectedly contemporary setting – in this case a deprived district of North London – in order to take the moral temperature of today’s world. It is a film that dares, from the unlikely vantage of Britain’s criminal underworld, to look heavenwards – and, in its darkly pessimistic way, to see nothing there.
In the unconventional screenplay by Tony Grisoni (Brothers of the Head, Tideland, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Mockney streetspeak meets Shakespearean bluster. Metaphors reign, eyes become “orbs”, and Mr Karva, played with impotent, kitten-frying rage by Cosmo, comes up with more euphemisms for masturbation than you could, er, shake a stick at. This hybrid language, along with Baz Irvine’s hyperkinetic camerawork and the otherworldly plotting, serves to transform the film’s familiar characters and settings into something grand, heroic and, as Karva himself puts it with his strange inflections, something “e-pic” – and if this effect does not come off as entirely believable, that is part of what the film is trying to say about faith in our secularised, banalised times.
The Lives of the Saints may be strange, it may at times be jarring, but what is beyond doubt is that Chris Cottam and Rankin’s feature debut is a bold calling card, sending the tired old tropes of the delinquent Britflick in a wholly – nay, holy – new direction.