As a girl, Mary Mirabito Livronese Calviere encountered a gypsy who predicted that she would live to be 96. As her 96th birthday approached, Nana’s grandson, filmmaker Alex Halpern, decided to make Nine Good Teeth, documenting the story of woman who not only held her family together, but also lived through most of the major events of the 20th century. Halpern believes that, “For Sicilians and Sicilian Americans, death is an underlying theme of life.” As he speculates on the film’s website, “Maybe it has something to do with the historical facts of the island or the physical contrasts of the landscape. That’s not to say that Nine Good Teeth is about death; it’s more a celebration of life and living it to its fullest, so that when you do finally leave this life, you go without regrets.”
Indeed, Halpern’s film presents his grandmother as courageous, ready to die without any regrets. “It was very important for me to see Mary in her totality,” he continues on the website, “I certainly didn’t want to cause any embarrassment to anyone in the family by revealing darker or more lurid aspects of their history. At the same time, I didn’t want to sugarcoat the facts.” While the director here suggests he wants it both ways, to make an objective film without hurting anyone’s feelings, Nine Good Teeth is undeniably skewed to display “Nana” in the best possible light. One can’t particularly fault Halpern for not wanting to exploit potential family troubles, but the result is less a documentary than a well-edited homage.
A familiar tale of an industrious family coming to America to realize their dreams, the film tells how Nana’s father moved to New York near the turn of the century, where he married and had children. He became an important figure in the Italian American community, serving as a guide for other Sicilians coming to the U.S. and helping them secure jobs. From there the film traces the family history from Nana’s perspective through World War II (where she lost her only son, Tommy), the death of her first husband and a second marriage. As Halpern uncovers Nana’s past, he also comes across his family mythologies, including stories of adultery, racketeering, and even murder. Using interviews with his grandmother as a starting point, Halpern fills in details with conversations with other family members. Visually, he weaves an intriguing tapestry of archival footage, home movies, and stills.
For the most part, he treats his grandmother with love and respect; however, a couple of scenes are simply exploitative. An early and irrelevant moment has Halpern goading his grandmother into saying she believes she can still have an orgasm at her age. And towards the end, he includes an appalling shot of Nana lying in bed, in the dress she wants to wear when she’s buried.
Other scenes leave questions hanging. Nana’s sister Gladys flat-out says she hates Nana for ruining her childhood, but we never learn the details behind this story. Much is made in interviews with her sisters and other relatives of Nana’s apparently resentful relationship with her mother, but Halpern doesn’t probe Nana for details. Furthermore, after her first husband passed away, Nana married the man with whom she had a brief affair with during that original marriage. The director fails to hold this to any scrutiny, or ask other family members their thoughts on her wedding to a man who was the source of tension in her previous relationship.
To this viewer, this issue remained strangely untouched. I turned the DVD’s commentary track, hoping for explanation. Unfortunately, the truly awful audio mix pushes Halpern’s voice to the fore, while Maria Halpern (Nana’s daughter) and Teese Gohl (the film’s composer) are virtually indistinguishable in the background. All three voices simultaneously compete with the audio coming from the film, creating a confusing and ultimately inaudible commentary track. With questions unanswered, Nine Good Teeth does demonstrate Halpern’s interest in Nana and his family’s history, but for the casual viewer, the experience feels more selective and voyeuristic than anything approximating a “totality.”