By Amy R. Handler | October 12, 2011

Long before the People’s Princess, Diana, there was the Family Princess, Agrippina of Mineo. At least that’s the label Boston’s North Enders use when describing their beloved Patron Saint of the diseased and maimed. Documentary filmmaker Christopher DiNunzio’s “Viva! Saint Agrippina” is a fascinating exploration of this little known Princess who died the most wretched of deaths, at the age of fifteen, for her faith.

According to DiNunzio, in 256 AD, the Roman Emperor Valerian set his sights on the blonde and beautiful Agrippina, and asked for her hand in marriage. When she refused—claiming that her life belonged strictly to Christ— Valerian became enraged, and buried her in a pit until she came to her senses. After a few days, without food and water, the Emperor asked again for her hand in marriage, and when she still refused him, Valerian had her chained, tortured, and beheaded. Later, when the Emperor and his henchman returned to collect her remnants, they found her clad in a white gown, which was as freshly pressed and scented, as the day it was new. Three holy women brought the remains of Agrippina to Mineo Sicily, where she was buried as a Martyr for her faith.

Boston’s historic North End is well known for such colorful residents as Increase Mather, Paul Revere, Gaspare Messina, Sacco and Vanzetti, and more recently, Charles Ponzi and Salvatore DiMasi. By the same token, Boston’s Little Italy is also renowned for its family-owned restaurants, primarily safe neighborhoods, beautiful churches and religious feasts. It is the 97th feast of Saint Agrippina, and all that goes into its annual making, that is the study of Christopher DiNunzio’s movie. And as may be imagined, what transpires behind the scenes of this historic celebration is a very serious business that commands the body-and-soul commitment of its members.

“Viva! Saint Agrippina” examines this North End, holy-membership (lovingly labeled, “The St. Agrippina di Mineo Benefit Society”), from its humble beginnings in 1914, to what it is today, and discovers that nothing has changed in terms of brotherhood and devotion to the cause. Planning for the feast, traditionally held on August 5-7, begins shortly after the statue representing the Saint is wrapped up and safely put away until the following year. Everything from the acquisition of funding, to cooking and entertainment, demands critical attention. But perhaps the most compelling aspect of all, is the way DiNunzio and Company explain the ritual of twenty devoted men who protect their bequeathed, spaces alongside the Saint’s elaborate canopy.

Here, these men from all walks of life act as guardian-pallbearers to the multi-ton, uncannily, lifelike statue of Saint Agrippina, as if their very lives depended upon this honor. And as we watch these young and ancient men parade, dance, and play tug-of-war with their beloved Martyr— through the streets, amidst throngs of neighborhood folk and world tourists—somehow or other, Saint Agrippina’s statue comes to life for a brief while, until her face once again grows pale.

And whether or not we can explain certain aspects of the North Enders’ strictly Italian ritual, such as their musical-interpretation of “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” or their obsession with pinning dollar bills on the statue, the end result is clear: Christoper DiNunzio’s “Viva! Saint Agrippina” is a must-see, powerhouse of a film for all who believe that the most profound of miracles, begin and end in our own back yards.

This film was submitted for review through our Submission for Review system. If you have a film you’d like us to see, and we aren’t already looking into it on our own, you too can utilize this service.

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