A Bronx Tale (1993) – Robert De Niro’s impeccable directorial debut is an overlooked gem

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A Bronx Tale can be easily mistaken for a Martin Scorsese film. It happened to me and it happened to so many others who have seen the film. Most of the elements that you would normally see in an early Scorsese film are here. There are Italian-American actors, an Italian-American neighborhood, a great background score and above all, Robert De Niro in the lead. Only here, the man behind the camera is none other than the leading man himself. It’s based on a play of the same name, written by Chazz Palminteri. It’s simply one of the greatest gangster films ever made. There was a time when I was so addicted to this film that I used to watch it 7 times a week. I didn’t feel like watching any other film at the time.

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1960s. The Bronx, New York. Lorenzo (Robert De Niro) is a bus driver trying to make ends meet for him, his wife and his little son Calogero (Francis Capra). The neighborhood is practically owned by a local mobster named Sonny (Chazz Palminteri). One day Calogero witnesses Sonny gunning down someone in order to protect a friend. When the detectives question all the witnesses, Calogero keeps his mouth shut and this impresses Sonny. As a gesture of gratitude, Sonny sends one of his men to offer Lorenzo a job, which he declines. Calogero on the other hand, starts earning some extra money on the side playing dice with Sonny. Lorenzo finds about this and gives him a scolding. He returns the money to Sonny and cautions him to stay away from his son.

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The story then cuts to 1968 and Calogero has now grown up (Lillo Brancato, Jr.). We learn that despite his father’s warnings, he still keeps in touch with Sonny. Sonny has become a sort of father figure for Calogero and advises him to stay away from his other Italian-American friends with whom he hangs out frequently at their social club. His friends are racists and sometimes abuses and brutally beats up some of the African-American kids in their neighborhood. Calogero isn’t like them and he even pursues a relationship with an African-American girl, who happens to be the sister of one of these beaten kids. She breaks up with him when her brother tells her that he is one of the guys who took part in the attack. The African-American kids retaliate for the attack by throwing Molotov cocktails at their social club. Calogero’s friends decide to do the same thing as payback but it backfires and in an accidental explosion, all his friends are killed. Going further would spoil the plot so I’m going to stop here.

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The film is basically a coming-of-age story that primarily explores the feelings and conflicted thought processes of an Italian-American kid caught between two father figures – one his real dad and the other one whom he admires. Lorenzo is the morally upright and conservative dad who is trying to make a living the honest way, even if it’s hard. He teaches Calogero about the importance of leading a honest life and finding pride in it. When Calogero suggests to his dad that he won’t get ahead in life if he is not willing to embrace change, Lorenzo tells him that what he is doing is more respectable. Lorenzo wouldn’t change his mind even when his wife learns about the job offer Sonny has made and asks him to consider it. He is a man of steely resolve. When he learns that his son still interacts with Sonny, he is displeased. He is not being possessive; he is simply trying to protect him from bad influences. Calogero’s admiration for a gangster echoes that of Henry Hill’s in Goodfellas when he says that becoming a gangster is akin to becoming the President of the United States.

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Sonny, despite being a gangster, doesn’t want others to end up like him. Just like any other gangster, he perfectly understands that this is a life that he cannot suddenly leave behind. He is enraged when he finds out one night that Calogero’s friends are interested in buying guns. Just as Lorenzo cautions Calogero to stay away from Sonny, he cautions Calogero to stay away from his stupid friends. It reminds me of that scene in The Godfather when Vito Corleone tells Michael that he never wanted him to follow the same path as his. Here, Sonny is so much like Vito. I thought Calogero learned more from Sonny than he did from his dad. Sure, his dad has some worldly wisdom for him at times, but Sonny has taught him much much more. He teaches him about love and fear, he teaches him about his own world and how his friends treat him. He also teaches him how not to get worked up over trivialities and also about trusting your own gut and making the right decisions, regardless of what others think. Sonny takes a place among some of my favorite movie characters of all time.

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I think A Bronx Tale is bit of an overlooked film. De Niro’s direction is surprisingly impeccable for a first timer. We can see that working under Scorsese for so many years has taught him well. That raw and gritty feel I first noticed in Scorsese’s Mean Streets is seen here as well. All the actors here seem to be having a good time, especially Chazz. (Italians make the best actors, no?) The soundtrack featuring the likes of Dean Martin, Aaron Neville, The Four Tops, James Brown etc., lends a sense of authenticity to the film. My favorite tracks are The Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Lovin'” and Aaron Neville’s “Tell it Like it is”. If De Niro was trying to imitate Scorsese, then he has succeeded and how. Lillo Brancato Jr. looks so much like a young De Niro from his Godfather days. Where did De Niro find him? It’s a pity that De Niro wasn’t able to replicate the exact same magic in his next film, The Good Shepherd. (I didn’t think it was a bad film though.)

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