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Portrait of a Family
New independent film Canvas, based on a true story, offers a sensitive, informed, and realistic picture of schizophrenia
By John Anderson
Reprinted with permission from Schizophrenia Digest, Winter 2007
Twenty-odd years ago, while he was attending elementary school in
"I remember wanting to shrink into the carpet," he recalls. "I was just absolutely mortified -- and terrified that at any moment my mother was going to start doing the things I saw her do at home."
What Greco's mother did at home was show the symptoms of severe schizophrenia that she developed when she was college age, and which informed Greco's family life for as long as he can remember.
Looking back now, he says, "My mother was completely normal in that particular scenario. She wasn't hearing voices. She wanted to come in and talk to the teacher and make sure I was okay.
"But Greco, fearful of what could have happened if his mother hadn't been well, went home and cried, "Mom, why did you come? You shouldn't have come!"
To deal with his difficult childhood, Greco, now 34 -- who graduated from
"It's been very cathartic for me," he says. "I believe that all art stems from a profound or painful experience, or something that impacted you so much that it has become the core of who you are."
Drama in Real Life
Greco, an only child, says Canvas is a fictional narrative inspired by the real events of his childhood.
The character representing Greco is 10-year-old Chris Marino (played in the film by newcomer Devon Gearhart), who lives in a blue-collar beach town and can often be found fishing at water's edge. His uncommunicative father, John (played by Joe Pantoliano), is a construction foreman, while his mother, Mary (played by Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden), suffers from schizophrenia and paints her dreams onto canvas, according to the film's Web site at www.canvasthefilm.com.
At the beginning of the film, Chris is returning to
Chris attempts to conceal his mother's illness, but her bizarre public behavior alienates him from other kids at school and places a wedge between him and his father. When Mary's illness leads her to violence, endangering her family and herself, John has no choice but to hospitalize the woman he adores.
"You can't get over the undying love this guy has for his wife," says Joe Pantoliano, who plays John Marino, a husband and father caught between the opposing forces of an unstable job, an ailing wife, and a son disoriented by the instability at home. "What I love about the movie is how this 10-year-old kid becomes the parent. My character at one point says, 'Mommy will be all right,' and he says, 'Don't ever say that Mommy's never going to be all right. '"
Much of what happens in the movie transcends any specific disease, says Harden, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the film Pollock.
She points to another scene in the film in which the Marino family decides to have Thanksgiving dinner at an overbooked restaurant during one of Mary's temporary leaves from the psychiatric hospital. Their reservation isn't honored, and Mary's desire for pumpkin pie escalates into a major scene.
"You know how it is," Harden says. "One member gets angry and the whole family gets whipped up. It's not about being mentally ill. People recognize it, because you know -- you're hungry, and you're sitting there, and you don't get the place you want, and you're angry, and you start going on and on, and then everybody gets involved. I think people can recognize themselves." Unable to accept his wife's illness or relate to his son, the film shows John trying to cope by immersing himself in building a large sailboat in his driveway. He works on it day and night, neglecting his son and his job. Chris, meanwhile, misses his mom and longs for his dad's affection, but John doesn't notice -- consumed with his project, John dreams of taking Mary sailing again in the boat he promised her years ago, before she became ill.
Throughout the movie, Chris tries to keep his chaotic home life a secret. But his worst fears are realized when Mary unexpectedly shows up at his birthday party at a roller-skating rink, a candled cake in her hands and a paper hat cocked on her head, and proceeds to inadvertently humiliate her sensitive son.
"She's trying to be a good mother, "Greco says of the sequence. "It's Chris who goes a little overboard. But that's what I loved about that scene." In Canvas, the classroom of filmmaker Joseph Greco's memory has become a roller-skating rink and the event a birthday party. But the moment remains ripe with potential public embarrassment and the lingering legacy of a life with schizophrenia.
Ridiculed and bullied by his classmates at school -- one asks if his mother wears a straitjacket to bed -- Chris lashes out. He picks a fight that gets him a suspension from school and punishment by John.
In one of the most dramatic moments in the movie, Chris's emotions are pushed to the limit, lead into a confrontation and catharsis that result in a better understanding between father and son.
THE ROLE, THE RESEARCH
Critical to the film was Harden's portrayal of Mary .
Greco says the actress "was very concerned with making sure we portrayed the illness and the story accurately, sensitively, and without sentimentality."
Harden did not meet the real-life Mary, Greco says because "I never wanted her to feel like she had to copy my mother." "Even though the film is very personal," he explains, "the Mary character is her own person. I wanted Marcia to have that freedom. "
Greco says he was amazed by how spot-on Harden's performance turned out to be.
"She bared her soul in the movie. Every time she went before the camera, I found it almost uncanny how very similar it was to what my mother would have done in that situation.
"At Greco's suggestion Harden and Pantoliano visited Fountain House in
"People find this incredible support there through art, painting, flower arranging, jobs, and just communicating with each other," says Harden, adding that she walked away from the experience feeling like all people are more alike than they are different.
"I guess you see the universality of mental illness in people living in kind of a small cross section of society," she says.
Pantoliano, who also is a producer on the movie, says that during the making of the film, he started identifying with Mary's character more than his own -- thanks in large part to the Fountain House visit.
"When Marcia and I left Fountain House that day, I turned to her and said, 'I can identify with these people more than I dis-identify with them.' And when I came home from making the movie, I found myself in therapy, because I've been battling depression for the last 10 years."
Greco says he was pleased with what both actors took away from the Fountain House experience. "They both said they started to forget who is a consumer and who isn't -- it was a profound moment for both of them. It crystallized what we all wanted the movie to say."