New York Times Review: Remember that mysterious loan? It’s Time to Pay It Back

New York Times Review

A family film in every sense, “Manna From Heaven” was produced by five sisters from Buffalo (Charity, Jennifer, Maria, Ursula and Gabrielle C. Burton), co-directed by two of them (Maria and Gabrielle) and written by their mother (Gabrielle B. Burton). It takes place in Buffalo, too, and opens with a scene set in the 1960’s, in which the members of an eccentric, extended family living in a modest frame house in a working-class neighborhood find themselves showered with $20 bills.

Though the money has blown out of a passing panel truck with a faulty back door, the financially strapped characters prefer to regard it as a gift from above, a view endorsed by the youngest member of the family, Theresa, an aspiring nun who everyone agrees is “a living saint.” They bag the money and divide it equally, intending to spend it on their hopes and dreams.

“Manna From Heaven” then flashes forward to the present, where it finds that most of the characters have matured into familiar character actors, among them Shirley Jones, Cloris Leachman, Harry Groener, Jill Eikenberry, Faye Grant, Frank Gorshin and Wendie Malick. Theresa has indeed become a nun (and is now played by Ursula Burton), and her moral sense has been refined in the process: she now believes that the money was only “a loan from God” and must be paid back. But because the cash has long since been spent, Sister Theresa
must talk the others into holding a fund-raiser: they’ll auction off a car donated by a local dealer (Seymour Cassel) and hold a dance contest in a refurbished 1920’s movie palace.

A product neither of Hollywood nor the New York-Sundance indie axis, “Manna From Heaven” is a true outsider film, and while it would be easy to fault its lack of technical polish, somewhat discursive script and uneven performances, it is also refreshingly sincere, gentle and good-natured. The filmmakers don’t disguise their Roman Catholic faith (the script even borrows its structure from the Lenten calendar, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Easter), but neither do they drown in excessive pietism.

It may not be the sort of movie one expects to see at a 42nd Street multiplex (it opens today at the AMC Empire and other New York area theaters and in Los Angeles), and in fact the Burton sisters are only now backing into New York after taking their film personally to several smaller markets and promoting it through a grass-roots campaign. But any blow against the system, as it is currently constituted by the major studios and their indie subdivisions, seems worth supporting, whether it originates in an East Village garret or a Buffalo rectory.

“Manna From Heaven” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It includes a couple of tasteful references to the importance of physical affection.

Directed by Gabrielle C. Burton and Maria Burton
PG, 119 minutes

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company