Survival of the Holy Fool questions the vitality of the “American Dream” in a country that is divided politically, economically, and spiritually. The film is set in a Philadelphia neighborhood and follows the lives of five households, some of which have lived there for generations. It takes place over the course of a year, beginning with the annual block party on an August day and ending one year later as a rare lunar eclipse appears. The celestial event coincides with profound changes that mark this community forever.
The Irish and Polish multi-generational families that live on the block have suffered for years with unemployment, poverty, and a sense of being left behind after the local metal plant closed in the 90s. They may not have a future filled with promise, but they are a close community with pride in their traditions. Beers at the corner pub, hanging out on their front stoops, and gossiping about each other bind them together.
But gentrification is bringing in new families with different values. An uneasy undercurrent of tribalism percolates daily life. Tensions rise when the newcomers raise concerns about lead contamination from the closed factory.
With the backdrop of a contamination investigation, we follow the lives of a handful of neighbors. The humanity of the characters shines through as they wrestle with a variety of challenges: addiction, debt, ambition, personal loss, family betrayal, and the basic desire to matter. But with their desire to matter, some characters make choices that will reverberate through their families’ lives.
The outcast of the neighborhood is the Holy Fool. She is a drifter who prays to the sun and the moon, communes with nature, and attempts to lead an exemplary spiritual life in a neighborhood overrun with fear and materialism. The Holy Fool’s neighbors are unsure how to respond to their modern day spiritual pilgrim.
The climax of the story arrives with a protest at the plant as the lunar eclipse approaches. Feuding factions and chanting protestors from around the country assemble to hear the EPA's conclusion about the lead investigation. The officials declare the plant an EPA superfund site, but because there are no funds for remediation, the plant and the cleanup will remain in limbo. Pandemonium breaks out and the protesters riot.
The Holy Fool, caught in the middle of the chaos, opens her mouth and blows her mystical inner light and sound through the rioters. For a moment, there is peace and unity, then the Holy Fool lies dead. As the neighbors grieve over the pilgrim, her spirit lifts up to the eclipse. She looks down at the destruction and pain of the rioters. She then tears off a piece of the eclipse to bring her spirit back to earth. She inhales deeply and is restored to life. Her purpose is not complete.
The denouement of the film shows the Holy Fool walking up a street joined by others who want to walk for the same message of peace. They are holy fools together.