A”GoodFellas” with heart, “A Bronx Tale” represents a wonderfully vivid snapshot of a colorful place and time, as well as a very satisfying directorial debut by Robert De Niro. Overflowing with behavioral riches and the flavor of a deep-dyed New York Italian neighborhood, the film also trades intelligently in pertinent moral and social issues that raise it above the level of nostalgia or the mere memoir. First release from Savoy Pictures should be able to carve a nice niche for itself through the fall.
Adroitly expanded by Chazz Palminteri from the one-man play he wrote and performed successfully in Los Angeles and New York, tale charts the growing-up of a youngster named Calogero amidst the small-time hoods and wiseguys of the Bronx in the 1960s. While serving up a wealth of anecdotal material, script never strays far from its potent dramatic focus, which pits the influence of the boy’s hard-working, highly principled father against the allure and power of the local mob strongman.
At first, it seems we’ve seen it all before — the street-corner thugs in shiny suits, the strutting and gesticulating, the heavy New York accents, the gambling and drinking, the constant swearing, the macho culture, the period music, the primacy of thuggish cool.
But, as seen from the p.o.v. of 9-year-old Calogero, it doesn’t take too long for the film to get beneath these trappings to establish its own rhythm and texture. The neighborhood in 1960 is ruled by Sonny (Palminteri), who’s always on the corner or at the local bar looking after business.
Everything changes after the boy sees Sonny shoot down a man in the street. When Calogero doesn’t identify the killer to the police, Sonny takes the kid under his wing, letting him in on craps games from which he takes home more money than his bus driver father Lorenzo (De Niro) makes in weeks.
Lorenzo has no use for a slimebag like Sonny and tries to argue the virtues of hard work and moral values, but Calogero eventually comes to think of his dad as a sucker and Sonny as a winner.
Eight years later, Calogero and his buddies have their own social club, Sonny is a much bigger shot, and black neighborhoods have edged close to Italian turf. Very much under Sonny’s sway, Calogero has followed his surrogate father’s advice to get two educations, in school and on the street, but his friends all seem like an accident waiting to happen, as they taunt and beat up black kids as they pass on the street.
For his part, Calogero takes a fancy to a black girl and dares to date her against a backdrop of escalating racial tension. Climax is fittingly violent, given the nature of the characters, and Calogero is left with any number of lessons well learned.
Not surprisingly, the film boasts nothing but splendid performances from the leads down to the smallest character bits. As the 9-year-old Calogero, Francis Capra shows both feistiness and obedience. This is magnified by Lillo Brancato, who takes over at 17, as Calogero develops into a young man in whom one can clearly see the dawning of moral sense and mature judgment. Brancato is also utterly believable physically as De Niro’s son.
De Niro has cast himself in the script’s least showy role, as the responsible , upright man amidst a carnival of flashy hoods, but he delivers some great scenes, particularly a hilarious one in which he warns his son about letting the little head think for the big head. It’s also given to him to repeatedly deliver pic’s theme –“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
A vaguely familiar face from assorted small roles in films and on TV, Palminteri is terrific as the charismatic Sonny, his quicksilver mood changes keeping everyone on their toes. His henchmen, including the memorable Clem Caserta as his first lieutenant, and the various neighborhood layabouts are pricelessly cast, and Taral Hicks is winning as the black girl who reciprocates Calogero’s interest.
Beyond the performance level, however, De Niro has shown impressive sensitivity to the irrational roots of racism and violence. A spectacularly funny scene in which the older wiseguys beat up a bunch of insolent bikers who invade their bar serves as prelude to the young Italians’ savage attack on some black kids, and the feel for racial matters is acute without stepping outside the narrative’s established p.o.v.
Pic abounds in flavorful, unforced humor, and the penetrating impression of neighborhood life is reinforced by De Niro’s decision to shoot entirely on location on a modified block in Queens, as well as by the naturalistic tech contributions.
Film takes a little time getting started, and a final development between Calogero and his girlfriend strains credulity, but this is an impressive first-time outing from many angles.