Bronx Tale: De Niro’s Impressive Directing Debut, based on Chaz Palminteri Play

Don’t miss Actor Robert De Niro’s outstanding directorial debut in A Bronx Tale, a coming-of-age saga based on Chazz Palminteri’s stage play.

I saw the film in the Toronto Film Fest with some of Los Angeles’ harshest critics, and yet we all found ourselves applauding scene after scene, and the movie as a whole, for its authenticity and perceptive humor.

The good news–and relief to many of us–is that A Bronx Tale is not a derivative, or second-hand Martin Scorsese, as one might expect from an actor whose best work has been in movies directed by Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, King of Comedy, etc.). Though a first film, De Niro already shows a distinctive voice, style, and great ease in handling his superb cast.

The narrative is structured in two parts. The first–and better–is set in 1960, when Calogero (Francis Capra) is an alert 9-year-boy, spending most of his leisure at the street corner of his house and befriending its mobsters and thugs. The tale then jumps ahead to l968, with the adolescent Calogero portrayed by another excellent actor, Lillo Brancato, who bears some physical resemblance to the young De Niro.

The entire neighborhood is ruled by Sonny (played by screenwriter Palminteri), a “goodfella” (to borrow the title of Scorsese’s great 1991 film) in every sense of the term. Sonny takes special interest in–and liking of–Calogero after the kid observes a shooting in his block and under pressure “chooses” to remain silent. Before long, Sonny and Lorenzo, the boy’s father (De Niro) engage in a conflict over Calogero’s soul, an archetypal example of a boy torn between the contradicting expectations of two fathers: a biological and a sociological.

What makes De Niro’s work particularly good is its uniquely rich texture, its ability to cast a fresh light on such pertinent, if familiar, issues as sexuality, the allure of crime, the first date, and perhaps best of all the irrational, often subconscious and unconscious, origins of discrimination and racism. This is accomplished through a detailed chronicle of an interracial affair and the territorial fights between the Italian and the neighboring black residents.

Several weeks ago, I went to see the film again, this time with my university students who take my course “International Cinematic Perspectives on Childhood,” an advanced seminar that examines such great coming-of-age films as Shane, To Kill a Mockingbird, Bicycle Thief, Padre Padrone, The 400 Blows, Murmur of the Heart, Europa Europa, Salaam Bombay.

Next time I teach this course, it will definitely include De Niro’s impressive debut. A Bronx Tale is an instant classic.