The Patron Saints: Toronto Review

Stark doc about existence in a nursing home is even more dispiriting than its subject would suggest.

A documentary about living in a nursing home says nothing that viewers aren't aware of already.

A nursing-home doc depressing enough to sell pre-paid vouchers for assisted suicide, Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky's The Patron Saints tells us nothing we don't know already, even if it delivers the message with empathy and gravitas. A certain brand of serious-minded arthouse patron might go see it, but the box-office prognosis is not good.

Set in what appears to be a repurposed airport hotel -- an ugly concrete box jutting out of forsaken fields -- the narration-free film observes a series of residents whose names we learn indirectly, if at all, and whose life stories emerge only rarely. Judging from the ones we do hear, viewers might prefer ignorance: Roro, for instance, a developmentally-disabled woman who may be blind, was molested by a brother who now visits her regularly, much to the dismay of Roro's roommate.

PHOTOS: Toronto Film Festival: 13 Movies to Know

More often, the film exists in the agonizing present tense, moving stoically from one contextless tableau to the next: toothless (and mirthless) laughter, blank stares into the camera, one-sided dialogues. The camera doesn't editorialize, but sometimes its very presence can seem cruel -- as when it pans slowly across a woman who dribbles cake crumbs while cooing to a plastic doll she may believe to be a real infant; or when it observes calmly as an agitated elder asks, repeatedly, "What am I doing here?"

The only justification for such a film's existence is the belief that bearing witness to these lives' final days is in itself humane. Some will argue, though, that the film's aesthetic turns the aged into fodder for a highbrow photography portfolio. Only a couple of patients here are able to engage the camera on anything like an equal footing -- notably an overweight, bed-ridden man who tells us he has lived in institutions his whole life, from foster homes to jail to this.

THR's Complete Toronto 2011 Coverage

He's not the most brilliant companion one could ask for, but his intermittent flashes of life may just keep viewers from slitting their wrists before the credits roll.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production Company: Pigeon Projects
Directors-producers-editors-directors of cinematography: Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky
No rating, 72 minutes