Most families have secrets - mysteries and mythologies, shared behind closed doors and passed down from generation to generation. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the documentary feature Nine Good Teeth is director Alex Halpern's insistence on ferreting out the most painful aspects of his family mythology in an irreverent, uncompromising fashion. In so doing, the film reveals many of the common truths hidden away in personal and communal histories as well as unexpected occurrences--late night visits from Jack Kerouac, illicit love affairs and the occasional murder.

Nine Good Teeth unfolds through the stories of Halpern's 104-year-old Italian-American grandmother Mary Mirabito Livornese Cavaliere ("Nana"). In an intimate and often hilarious portrait, Mary, a fiercely independent woman, dispenses homespun wisdom in a series of unflinching conversations with her persistent and equally outspoken grandson. As she divulges family secrets and rivalries, Mary confronts her own mortality with candor and courage while remaining the rock on which the rest of her family relies.

Nine Good Teeth uses family photographs, journals, home movies and historical archival material to trace the roots of Mary's family from the volcanic island of Stromboli, off the coast of Sicily, to Brooklyn, New York, where she was born on September 8, 1899, the second of thirteen children. We follow Mary's visits to post- World War II Europe as she returns to the land of her ancestors, chaperoning a free-spirited daughter. Following a tumultuous married life in suburban Long Island, she eventually rediscovers romance at age 68 with a long-lost suitor. Her daily life in present-day New York is captured against the backdrop of kitchens, living rooms, hospitals, and graveyards. Most recently, she was honored at the United Nations by having her hand imprinted in the center of the World Mandala Monument created by artist Neil Tektowski (

In the process of capturing Mary's life and times, Halpern turns his camera on various members of the extended family and uncovers a multitude of conflicting viewpoints. Questions are asked, left unanswered and later revisited. We learn Mary was an inattentive mother with artistic aspirations who resented being trapped at home. Mary and daughter Maria's explosive and contradictory relationship is steeped in a shared revisionism of past events. Her younger sister Gladys blames Mary for her lost adolescence and refuses to see her before either die. Mary's desire, from an early age, to live her life equal to that of a man, was often in direct conflict with her roles as daughter, wife, mother, matriarch and first-generation American.

An extraordinarily accomplished portrait emerges of a woman whose optimism, strength and heartfelt wisdom has helped her transcend the cultural boundaries of her immigrant heritage. Nine Good Teeth is a tribute to a remarkable "ordinary heroine" and a powerful celebration of life, love and family.