Here is the book's section on one of the really special Boston movies, Beth Harrington's one-of-a-kind mix of documentary and staged scenes--funny, evocative, thought-provoking, endearing, personal, convincing. Like the best Boston movies, it has a great sense of place. It's never come out on commercial home video, but last time I checked the North End branch of the Boston Public Library had a VHS copy Check it out.
1995. Written and directed by Beth Harrington. With The People of the North End, Beth Harrington, Roberta Beyer, Trisha Zembruski, Lorenzo Perez, Melinda Lopez, Jeff Miller and Michael Harrington. Cinematography by Kyle Kibbe.
A 1991 VIDEOTAPE OF a North End feast shot by Beth Harrington inspired her wondrous hour-long movie. The Jamaica Plain native’s tape became a Boston media sensation when it apparently showed a Madonna statue blinking. But in letting us share in Harrington’s religious and personal reaction to the event and the subsequent hoopla, The Blinking Madonna covers much more ground than that mere “miracle.”
Harrington establishes the context for her reaction to the incident through hilarious staged flashbacks that she narrates. In them, we see seven-year-old Beth (Roberta Beyer) in her early-1960s parochial school—complete with Bing Crosby-casual priest (Michael Harrington; no relation to Beth)—consuming herself in her religion during the heyday of Boston Catholicism (cue the clips of dashing JFK and gravel- voiced Cardinal Cushing). The kid’s-eye-view interplay between wide-eyed Beth and the ominous yet very theatrical nun (Trisha Zembruski) who teaches her is a hoot to watch. (The Archdiocese of Boston changed its mind about letting Harrington shoot inside Braintree’s St. Francis of Assisi School, causing her to film classroom interiors in Jamaica Plain’s aptly named John F. Kennedy School.)
Staged flashbacks and newsreel footage of the changing world beyond Catholic school next combine to show how religion becomes less important in Harrington’s life. Later, though, she moves to the North End to try to return to a more traditional life, culturally if not religiously. The move is also a way for Harrington to connect with her Italian-American mother’s heritage. But, of course, even a half-Italian woman trying to fit in is still “an outsider” to North End natives, and The Blinking Madonna details her uneasy path to neighborhood acceptance with a characteristically light touch. Her social entrée was to start videotaping the cultural traditions around her in short films such as Ave Maria. (The cool, unmentioned fact that Harrington was also a backup singer for Natick’s finest son, Jonathan Richman, during several of her 18 years in the North End should also be noted.)
The breakup of a long relationship, a move from one North End apartment to another and a lack of work lead to the vulnerable emotional state Harrington is in at the time of the blinking Madonna incident. Although she knows the “miracle” is a result of a glitch in her camcorder’s auto-focus, the event turns out to be an emotional watershed for Harrington. It doesn’t awaken any dormant religious faith, but instead makes her appreciate life’s happy little accidents and blesses her with a new go-with-the-flow attitude.
The seed for this new attitude comes not only from the accident on the feast video, but also from the carefree new neighbors in her North Margin Street building that Harrington dubs the “airline angels” (flight personnel played by Lorenzo Perez, Melinda Lopez and Jeff Miller). As with the Catholic school sequences, the scripted scenes in which the neighbors loosen up Harrington are down to earth and funny, as are the recreations of the hubbub surrounding the video (featuring many non-professional North Enders, who do just fine before the camera).
Beneath the intentional surface comedy of The Blinking Madonna, there’s a quiet wisdom that makes the ending very moving and the movie especially rich. Like so much of the best non-fiction moviemaking that’s come out of Greater Boston, it’s an affecting combination of soul-baring and storytelling.
The new go-with-the-flow attitude Harrington picked up in The Blinking Madonna stuck. Eventually, she left the North End for the Pacific Northwest to be with her future husband. She also showed that she could make an outstanding movie that looked beyond her own experiences when she traveled the lost highway of American music history to spotlight the fire-breathing, foot-stomping, fringe-shaking, rule-breaking, trailblazing women of country-tinged 1950s rock ’n’ roll in 2002’s Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly.
►Locations: North End, Jamaica Plain, Boston; Braintree.
►Accents: In spades. And they’re real.
►Local color: If North End feasts, neighborhood tribalism, Cardinal Cushing clips and Catholic schools aren’t Boston local color, nothing is. You can practically taste the fried dough during the feast footage.