I've always been very mistrustful of voice-over narration in film. Too often it seems to end up being used as nothing but the last ditch attempt by a desperate filmmaker to patch together a failing, incoherent screenplay. Rarely does the device seem to add any extra resonance to the material in hand; and all too often it lends itself to lazy attempts to impose a certain authorial interpretation, or tell the viewer exactly what to think about every situation being enacted. If a film can't develop its characters and themes 'naturally' through an accumulation of sequences and scenes, or can't make itself understood in a visual way, then an over-reliance on a narrator's voice can usually be relied upon to make an unwelcome appearance, almost always shattering any vestige of atmosphere with its intrusive presence. The overbearing narrator soon makes an appearance in Ezra Gould's indie-made, digitally shot thriller "Saint Francis". Uniquely though, even with this dubious addition, the film remains almost entirely incomprehensible! All too often it plays like a jumbled collection of scenes, with relations between the main characters having to be established by a grating, ubiquitous voice-over —almost as though this were a film composed after the fact, in the editing suite, without the benefit of any prior screenplay to work off. That said, the film is clearly at the more professional end of the burgeoning heap of low-budget, shot-on-digital video flicks being churned out by independent filmmakers at the moment: it has all the shadowy, modern noir stylings of a "Lost Highway"; the general tone of the film, indeed, seems to be aimed at replicating the darker nightmarish side of David Lynch's recent oeuvre, and the visual look it achieves is certainly at least as good as Lynch's own journey into the outer reaches of the DV revolution, "INLAND EMPIRE".
Unfortunately, such is the seemingly overpowering effect of Lynch's influence on director Ezra Gould (whose IMDb profile lists him as an editor on a variety of U.S. TV shows before he moved into the indie writer/director sphere), that "Saint Francis" follows "INLAND EMPIRE's" stitched together 'art project' policy into oblivion, struggling hopelessly without Lynch's genius hand at the helm (and, lets face it, "INLAND EMPIRE" was hardly his finest hour, even then). What could have been an arresting, darkly erotic fever dream — a LA-based variation on the erotic porno nightmares contained in the more recent work of Jess Franco — rapidly spins out of control with only a handful of memorable scenes and a sprinkling of workable ideas left to make sense of at the end of it all. The truth is, none of it amounts to much more than yet another weak variation on the "Jacob's Ladder" plot device, where a character, in this case washed-up druggie Francis (Charles Koutris), struggles with the distinction between reality and fantasy while on the brink of death. You've a better chance of understanding it all by reading the director's own synopsis at IMDb; while the very fact that this kind of clarification is possible at all seems to prove that the director had more straightforward ambitions initially than Lynch himself often does in his work. (Can you imagine DL providing a single paragraph 'explanation' of any of his most recent films?)
So with this help, and that attempt at clarification provided by the film's narrator, lets try to make some sense of the 72 minute welter of sounds and images, the collage of semi-random sequences, that goes by the name "Saint Francis":
Francis Bernard has not led a happy life. His Mom killed herself in front of him when he was but a boy; his dippy Dad (Zalman King) has since founded his own crazy religious cult, The Church of Forever — his own patented mix of L. Ron Hubbard-style SF religio-fantasy involving alien abduction and the even more noxious rantings of money-grabbing television evangelists; while his sister Soul (Dita Von Teese) brokers girls to members of her Father's Church as well as her own drug-dealing brother, Sid (Casey Anderson), who is also in deep debt to some unscrupulous drug lords. Not the most well adjusted of families, then. But Francis has even greater troubles than this, for at the start of the film he languishes in anaesthetised oblivion while a team of surgeons struggle to keep him alive on the operating table. As he drifts between life and death, a hallucinogenic collage of images, memories and fantasy intermingled with overheard snippets of his father's demented sermons and excerpts from daytime TV, play through his confused mind.
Unsurprisingly, Dita Von Teese gets head billing, being the only cast member at all with any kind of name recognition (besides the weirdly cast Zalmon King, more generally known for producing those late night soft porn extravaganzas such as "The Red Shoes Diaries"). Her acting talents aren't exactly stretched to breaking point by her role as a somnambulistic procurer of prostitutes, though, her on-screen appearances being restricted in the main to looking pale and blank in the back of a chauffeur driven car, and mildly alluring in a variety of skimpy evening dresses. Speaking of which, what little interest the film does retain comes about through the high level of erotic content (a lesson Gould may have learned from Jess Franco), although the copious nudity stays firmly in the soft-core category despite the sleazy, druggy vibe of most of the proceedings. Von Teese herself, though, mainly keeps her clothes on until quite near the end of the film, although she is the only female cast member who does so! The small portion of extras included with Salvation's DVD release home in on this with laser precision as the main selling point of the movie, consisting of extended (though no more explicit) versions of all the main erotic scenes!
The biggest positive thing to be said for this film, though, is the stylish neon-noir atmosphere Gould achieves on what must have been a minimal budget. Although the film fails to hang together overall, there appears to be great promise here, and I would certainly keep an eye on any future projects the director may choose to unleash!