by Michael Moore
**** 3 1/2 stars ****
Could “Manna from Heaven” really be this year’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding?” — one of the most popular independent films ever made.
Even “Manna’s” producers acknowledge that the stars would have to align just right for their film to hit as big as “Big Fat Greek Wedding,” but “Manna” is certainly a touching movie with a well-written script that is sure to keep audiences’ attention. Like “Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Manna” is a stark contrast from some of Hollywood’s worst big budget films with thin story lines and awful acting. But, with no advertising, the problem will be getting people to the theaters to see it.
“Manna” is a truly independent film produced by the Burton family of Buffalo’s Five Sisters Productions. The family’s matriarch, Gabrielle B. Burton, wrote the script; a daughter, Gabrielle C. of Liberty Township, co-directed the film [with her sister Maria] and three of the Burton sisters have parts in the movie. The film’s characters are rich and interesting and the plot keeps moves you along to an expected ending that comes in an unexpected way.
Like “Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Manna” is a feel-good story that will have audiences leaving the theater with a smile on their face and a hope in their heart. But, unlike “Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Manna” didn’t have a multi-million advertising budget on which to draw in audiences. Starting in August, the Burton family has traveled with the film from city to city, spreading the word in person at each opening.
“Manna from Heaven” opens today at the Delaware Square Theater where it will be playing throughout next week. And the Burton family will be there.
Set in the mid 1960s, the movie’s plot revolves around the nun Theresa (Ursula Burton), whose friends and family always believed was touched by God. When a truck load of $20 bills falls from the sky, the clan uses a young, saintly Theresa’s blessing that it is “a gift from God” to fulfill their own selfish ambitions.
Years later, and long after all the money has been spent, Theresa’s conscience gets the best of her in the form of visions spelled out in a bowl of holy water. The message: The money has to be repaid.
Theresa calls the clan back together and what follows is a comedy of personal interactions as they try to “repay” the money through a dance contest and a car raffle. The problem is that none of them really want to give the money back and even if they did they wouldn’t know to whom to give it.
The ensemble cast is accomplished and worked for modest fees because they liked the script, Gabrielle C. Burton said . Academy Award winner Shirley Jones (“The Partridge Family”) and Frank Gorshin (“Batman,” “12 Monkeys”) are a hilarious husband and wife con team whose life of conniving extends to a plot to fix the raffle and steal the door money at the dance contest. Inez (Wendie Malick) is a street-smart Vegas card dealer that shows a soft side when she falls in love with a Secret Service agent who’s investigating a trail of counterfeit money. “He knows how to gamble. He knows how to drink. He knows how to smoke. There’s gotta be something wrong with him,” Inez says. Jill Eikenberry (“L.A. Law,” “Arthur”) is an eternal optimist whose unending generosity balances out the rest of the cast. Shelley Duvall, one of the first actors to sign on with “Manna,” has a cameo role. Cloris Leachman (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) is an elderly and invalid “mother” who rediscovers independence and youth when she tries to win the car raffle.
If nothing else, “Manna from Heaven” gives people a sense of renewed hope, that people can pull together for the common good.
The unfortunate thing is that many people won’t go see “Manna” because there’s no big promotional budget to support it. But those people will be missing a gem of a movie that the big Hollywood studios only wish they could get.
Three and a half stars. Rated PG. 119 minutes.