Thursday, August 1, 2013

Classics: A Review of A Bronx Tale By: Lauren Ennis

No, my son's not allowed in your Coke commercial
One of the most difficult and fascinating journeys that we face is that which takes us from childhood to adulthood. For some, this time is marked by awkward exchanges with peers, angst-fueled outbursts, and the start of the desire to understand who we are. In the coming of age classic,  A Bronx Tale, adolescence is a time  in which Calogero Anello is was forced to confront the things he was always told he would understand ‘when you get older’. Through the guidance of his two very different father figures, he learns about love, family, and the sadness that is wasted talent.

The film begins as an adult Calogero reflects upon his childhood in the Bronx’s Little Italy. He describes his parents, neighbors, and most notably, the local organized crime syndicate. To nine year old Calogero (Francis Capra) and his friends, neighborhood boss Sonny (Chazz Palminteri) and his mob are living legends who provide a glimpse of life beyond the city’s tenements. Calogero’s father, Lorenzo (Robert De Niro), is a hard working bus driver doing the best that he can to support his family while following the neighborhood protocol of minding his own business. Lorenzo tries to teach his son the importance of living with integrity, but all the boy sees is the “clothes, cars, and money” that organized crime offers. One day, Calogero witnesses Sonny intervene in a street fight and shoot a man to death. When the cops arrive at his apartment looking for information, he follows the code of his neighborhood and refuses to rat, a decision that he father calls doing “a good thing for a bad man”. Sonny shows his gratitude by taking Calogero under his wing, and treating him like a surrogate son. Although he means well, Sonny’s attention only exacerbates the tension between Calogero and Lorenzo, and fosters in Calogero an even greater adoration for the criminal lifestyle.
The story then flashes ahead eight years as a now seventeen year old Calogero (Lillo Brancato) copes with the Bronx’s version of the adolescent experience. He continues to spend time with Sonny despite Lorenzo’s disapproval, and views Sonny as a mentor and father figure. He also falls under the influence of his increasingly reckless childhood friends, Slick (Joe D’Onofrio) and Mario (Louis Vanaria). Eventually, he begins a romance with African-American schoolmate, Jane (Tara Hicks), despite the dangers of interracial relationships in the 1960’s. His relationship with Jane is further complicated by the racist actions of Slick and Mario, who viciously beat a group of black students riding bikes through the neighborhood, which happens to include Jane’s older brother. Sonny sees the negative effect that Slick and Mario have on Calogero and tries to convince him to stay in school and pursue a better life, much like the one Lorenzo always planned for him. Tensions finally boil over when Calogero is forced to choose whose example he will follow and what kind of life he wants to lead.
I never get nagged like this by the gangsters
 One of the most notable aspects of A Bronx Tale is the fact that it is based upon a true story. The film originated as a one man play written by Palimteri and is based upon his childhood experiences growing up in the Bronx in the 1960’s. The play premiered in 1990 and became an off-Broadway hit. Robert De Niro attended a performance of the play, and was so impressed that he offered to buy the rights to the script. Palimteri only agreed to sell the rights under the conditions that he would write the screenplay and play the role of Sonny. De Niro accepted Palminteri’s conditions, and became so focused upon maintaining the script's integrity that he even went so far as to hire one of the actual members of Sonny's mob to play himself in the film. This critically and commercially successful collaboration launched  both Palminterri's film career and De Niro’s directing career.

The story’s foundation in reality provides the film with a sense of historical and geographical accuracy that many gangster films lack. For instance, while Sonny and his crew are clearly part of the mafia, they’re influence is restricted to the neighborhood over which they preside. Similarly, although Calogero’s parents are portrayed as morally upright, his mother is still tempted when Sonny offers Lorenzo a job with his crew. The film also expertly captures the racial tensions rising in the city and across America during this time period. One scene in which Calogero uses a racial slur against Jane’s brother in a moment of frustration and another in which he finds himself on the receiving end of racial hatred in her neighborhood are particularly striking in their emotional honesty. By firmly maintaining its sense of time and place, A Bronx Tale is able to rise above the clichés that many gangster films rely upon and tell a story that is both poignant and raw.
The film perfectly encompasses the universal conflicts and confusion of adolescence, despite the fact that it is a period piece. While Calogero’s experiences with Sonny’s gangsters are difficult for audiences to completely relate to, his interactions with his friends and family are familiar to people of all walks of life. His efforts to resist peer pressure while trying to remain ‘cool’ in the eyes of his friends are reminiscent of the conflict between image and integrity that teenagers continue to face today. Similarly, his awkward first meeting with Jane portrays the nervous thrill of a new relationship that viewers know all too well. Calogero’s relationships with Lorenzo and Sonny convincingly combine the misunderstandings, conflicts, and life lessons that make up father-son relationships in ways that give equal weight to his interactions with both men. Thus, through its superb script and exemplary cast, A Bronx Tale tells the story of one young man’s coming of age, while serving as a reminder of all the growing up we, the viewers, have done and will continue to do throughout our lives.
A Bronx Tale is a film that continues to entertain with its unique take on timeless themes. By combining the gangster and coming of age genres, the film reveals the challenges of growing up and explores what it really means to be a man. Since its release, the film has gained a cult following with many of the lines (especially Sonny’s door test speech) regularly quoted. This film is commendable for the way that it manages to both entertain and educate without ever resorting to clichés or lecturing. I recommend this film for those coping with growing up and those who remember the highs and lows of doing so. And as an added bonus, here's one of Sonny's life lessons, on the house:
You dump her and you dump her fast


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