“Everybody thinks of my mother as some kind of a saint because she’s this fragile little old woman. My mother was a pistol. Sometimes she was a witch. Even my father, and everybody trembled before my father’s wrath, my father found her to be a tiger… she was something to be contended with.”
Alex Halpern’s 2003 documentary Nine Good Teeth is the story of Mary Mirabito Livornese Cavaliere aka “Nana”, the fiery elderly matriarch best described in the quote by her daughter above. Mary lived a fascinating life, which her grandson Halpern documents in frank and intimate detail.
Nana was born on September 8th, 1899 in Brooklyn New York, the second of thirteen children raised by Sicilian immigrants.
Through interviews with key relatives and Nana herself, and alongside amazing archive photos and film providing snapshots of New York and Italy, the stories and secrets of three generations of the same family are revealed in front of the camera.
Although the quantity and quality of old family movies and antiquated photos are astounding, the real draw of this film is Nana herself, a woman with a beautiful, kind hearted nature, but who could be transformed from sweet old lady to blistering autocrat in one swift move if something was not to her liking.
Her grandson Alex, or ‘Alexander’ as Nana consistently refers to him, manages to draw amazing conversations from his grandmother, conversations I could never imagine sharing with my own elderly relatives. For example, early on in the film Alex asks her about her personal life:
Alex: ‘When you go to sleep at night how do you feel?’
Nana: ‘I feel as if I want somebody there who’ll love me. I get lonesome’
Alex: ‘Do you think you could enjoy sex with a man at your age? Remember what you told me the other day?’
Nana: ‘Mmm, I think so…’
Alex: ‘Tell me what you told me the other night.’
Alex: ‘Remember when we were on the front… are you embarrassed? Come on don’t be embarrassed!’
Alex: ‘What you said… “Even at your age you could think what…”
Nana: ‘That I could have an orgasm? Yeah I think I could… I’m so young inside of me. I’m old, but not inside of me. Inside of me I feel very young… sexually. Ok?”
Halpern’s film is by no means groundbreaking, but it is highly enjoyable, at times emotional and highly sentimental, at times extremely funny. His family has an extraordinary history, one that has been shared in a unique way through this documentary film.
Nine Good Teeth reveals the strength and the importance of Nana within her family, and how much those around her love her.
You can watch the film for via the Snag Film website (an amazing FREE source for great documentaries and independent films).
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from the film, plus you can watch an excerpt from the film below:
Alex: ‘Do you think someone should keep a little souvenir of you after you die?’
Nana: ‘Like what?’
Alex: ‘Like a finger?’
Nana: ‘Like a what?’
Alex: ‘Like a finger?’
Nana: ‘Oh no, that’s a sad thing…’
Alex: ‘Do you know you can go and see Napoleon’s penis in a museum…’
Nana: ‘You’re kidding!?… Why didn’t I see it in France?’