Novelist Anne Rice is most famous for her "Vampire Chronicles," but she's also the author of a non-supernatural historical novel set in pre-Civil War New Orleans. Showtime's filmed version of this work, The Feast of All Saints, is a lavish miniseries nearly four hours long, introducing us to the lives and loves of the "gens de couleur libre" (the free people of color) of New Orleans.
The Feast of All Saints is essentially a coming-of-age story centering around Marcel, a young man of color who is raised as an aristocrat in a life paralleling, but never intersecting, the life of his white plantation-owner father. We see him trying to come to terms with his place in life and his expectations for the future, while around him we also see the different stories unfold of his mother, sister, and friends.
There's nothing really wrong with The Feast of All Saints; it has a polished appearance, pains have clearly been taken to create an accurate 19th-century New Orleans setting, and the acting is solid. Just the same, it lacks a certain spark, that necessary "something" to hook the viewer and draw him into the film's world. I found myself watching the film's events without being particularly involved; it was watchable, but it also didn't make me curious to find out what would happen to the characters or how the story would proceed.
The most interesting part of The Feast of All Saints is probably its historical background. The free people of color are a varied group, ranging from skilled artisans to merchants and bankers to plantation owners, and with their own very well-established aristocracy. This aristocracy has a strange, almost stylized relationship with the white aristocracy, hosting "quadroon balls" in which the loveliest girls are paraded in the hopes that each will attract a wealthy white man to take her as his mistress and support her in style. But even when the African blood is very dilute ("quadroons" were one-quarter African, "octroons" one-eighth), the children born of these dalliances were welcome only in the colored aristocracy, not in the social circles of their real fathers. In the miniseries, we do get to see what life was like in this strange New Orleans society; what's missing is a bit more context to what we're seeing. For instance, early on it seems that there's a great deal of significance to a battle that took place on Haiti, and we get several flashbacks to it, but neither the events themselves nor their significance to the story are ever adequately explained.
In the supplemental materials included in the DVD, we learn that one of the motivations behind this story was to show that the African experience in America was not exclusively one of slavery: to emphasize that the free people of color existed and had a vibrant culture of their own. I think that's an excellent approach... but why, then, does The Feast of All Saints have such a pervasively preachy flavor? Throughout the film, the presence of the Evil White Man (in the abstract, or in the particular) is always hovering, always kept alive in the storyline in one way or another. Yes, we get it: oppression is a bad thing. Yes, we see that there's some definite sexual inequality here. Toward the end, The Feast of All Saints suggests that this oppressive relationship was not solely imposed by the whites, but also supported by the people of color; unfortunately, this ends up being presented in a fairly simplistic way, as if the filmmakers were afraid of actually discovering a more complex relationship than oppressed and oppressor.
The Feast of All Saints is a two-DVD set, with each disc in its own plastic keepcase inside a glossy paper slipcase.
The image quality here is extremely variable, ranging from truly awful to very good; the rating I've given it is really just an average. Some scenes are extremely blurry and look heavily compressed; others are clear and sharp. Some scenes show heavy grain; others are clean. Some of the worst image quality comes at the beginning of the film; it does get better, particularly in close-up shots, but long-distance shots remain problematic throughout the film. Colors are very good as a whole, with a bright and natural appearance; contrast is adequate, looking good most of the time but a bit too dark in some scenes. The film is presented in an anamorphically-enhanced 1.85:1 widescreen transfer, which preserves its original aspect ratio.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack offers a pleasing listening experience for the film. The soundtrack has a natural and clean quality to it, and dialogue is clear and understandable. Some mild surround effects are used, creating a touch of ambiance. A Spanish Dolby mono soundtrack is also available.
A moderate selection of special features is included with the DVD set. Disc 1 has a photo gallery and filmographies along with a text essay on "The History of the Free People of Color." Unfortunately, this essay is very hard to read, as it's all in capital letters.
Disc 2 has a short promotional-style featurette on "The Making of Anne Rice's The Feast of All Saints" (14 minutes), with a few interesting tidbits packaged in a lot of film clips and general promotion. The "Interviews" section is marginally better: we get Jennifer Beals (4 minutes) and Peter Gallagher (7 minutes) discussing their work, with plenty of generic "I play a character who..." filler; Gloria Reuben (3 minutes) discussing the script and the book; and Ben Vereen (3 minutes) discussing his thoughts on being part of the project. None of this material is really substantial enough to satisfy even casual fans of the film.
We also get trailers for other Showtime releases (Last Call, Lift, Ruby's Bucket of Blood, and Varian's War) and a weblink.
The Feast of All Saints is a reasonably well-crafted miniseries; if you're interested in the time and place of the story, or if you've read Anne Rice's novel and are eager to see it on the screen, then you will most likely enjoy the film. However, it's not engaging enough for me to recommend as a purchase; I suggest that The Feast of All Saints as a rental choice if you find the setting intriguing.