An earnest attempt to grapple with outdated mores in an isolated American-Italian community in Boston, "The North End" is a fitfully successful low-budget first feature. Anchored by a strong cast of newcomers, the gritty tale doesn't quite hit the target, inadvertently reinforcing the very conduct it sets out to criticize.

An earnest attempt to grapple with outdated mores in an isolated American-Italian community in Boston, “The North End” is a fitfully successful low-budget first feature. Anchored by a strong cast of newcomers, the gritty tale doesn’t quite hit the target, inadvertently reinforcing the very conduct it sets out to criticize. Set to open the Boston Film Festival after its Montreal bow, pic has limited theatrical appeal but could score OK in upscale specialized markets and secure some decent TV and pay cable sales. It’s one of those freshman items that holds out the promise of better things in the future from the filmmakers.

Primary focus is on two ex-Harvard buddies sharing an apartment in the titular Boston Italian neighborhood. Freddie (Matt Del Negro) is a documaker with roots in the community who’s hoping to finish a profile of the area. Mac (Mark Hartmann), a yuppie investment banker, represents the gentrification element.

In order to make his movie, Freddie needs a thumbs-up from Dom Di Bella (Frank Vincent), a guy who’s maintained a high profile in the community as a result of playing gangsters in the movies. He and his cronies espouse “traditional” values that translate into racist and sexist attitudes. Though blind to their Italian chauvinism and macho ways, they are confident a paisan like the filmmaker will do “the handsome thing” with his study.

The irony on which the story turns is that Freddie has evolved beyond the ethnic posturing of his elders, but Irish-American Mac out-Italians the old-timers, exemplified by his violent, possessive nature toward girlfriend Danielle (Lina Sivio). Her attempts to quit waitressing when a modeling opportunity arises are encouraged by Freddie while Mac goes into a rage. She can’t quite figure out why she opted for a guy just like her intolerant brother when sensitive Freddie is right under her nose.

The script by Joseph Ciota aims to cover a lot of ground and often trips up in its arguments. In decrying the Madonna ethos, he creates a woman who typifies that ideal, and director Frank Ciota films her with utmost tenderness. There are also structural problems that arise from a seesawing focus between the young trio and the aging thugs.

Much of the structural awkwardness is smoothed over in performance. Del Negro, Hartmann and Sivio are extremely charismatic performers who bring a lot of understanding to their respective characters’ weaknesses. Vincent, a staple of Scorsese movies, brings an unnerving reality to the piece and an emotional tie to dramatic territory delineated in the other director’s films.

Director Ciota makes the most of his resources on a modest budget and turns in a gritty, though not crudely made production. “The North End” also benefits from a lively music score by Adam Steinberg.

The North End

Production

A Mavex production. Produced by Michael King. Directed by Frank Ciota. Screenplay, Joseph A. Ciota.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Jon Bekemeier; editor, George Chiochios; music, Adam Steinberg; production design/art direction, Matt Hankey; sound, Lenny Manzo; assistant director, Jacob Charney. Reviewed at World Film Festival, Montreal (Cinema of Today), Aug. 27, 1997. (Also in Boston Film Festival.) Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Dom Di Bella - Frank Vincent Nunzio - Tony Darrow Matt Del Negro - Freddie Fabucci Danielle Amato - Lina Sivio Mac McCain - Mark Hartmann Gio Amato - Peter Marciano Ralphie - Nick Puccio Giorgio - Charley Broderick
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