Films in the form of autobiographical reminiscences are common amongst first-time feature directors. Such films often display a strong sense of a past time, and of a place where someone grew up or had a formative experience. They are usually stuffed with nostalgic pop songs which conjure an era of youthful dreams and energies. And there is sometimes a maudlin cloud over these projects, a none-too-subtle lament that, for those reminiscing, life was better then, more vital and more illuminating. Examples of this trend include Dan Algrant's Naked in New York (1994), John Turturro's Mac (1992) or Bob Ellis' The Nostradamus Kid (1993). Robert De Niro's directorial debut, A Bronx Tale (1993), owes something to Martin Scorsese's twitchy, explosive screen memoirs, such as Who's That Knocking at My Door (1968) and Mean Streets (1973). But it generally takes a more cautious route, akin to an extended episode of The Wonder Years as peppered up by Spike Lee.
However, the directly autobiographical element of the film comes not from De Niro but his writer and cast member, Chazz Palminteri. He once witnessed an inexplicable shooting outside his front doorstep. In the film, the man wielding the gun becomes Sonny (Palminteri), a suave and fearsome neighbourhood crime lord. And the boy becomes Calogero, played by a non-professional with the marvellous movie name of Francis Capra.
A Bronx Tale presents a typical story of a boy's sentimental education. Calogero vacillates between good and evil father figures – Sonny on the one hand, and his real Dad, Lorenzo (De Niro), on the other. Sonny offers easy money and seedy glamour. Lorenzo can only give his son the solid values of a working class, family-oriented, law abiding life. Lorenzo is also big on homilies and pithy slogans, such as "the saddest thing in life is wasted talent".
That line about talent, like every key statement of theme in Palminteri's script, is repeated ad nauseam. This is the weaker, Wonder Years-like aspect of A Bronx Tale – its determination to spell everything out, tie it all up, and make sure you know what to think about it. De Niro is no doubt aiming here for the artful simplicity of an oft-told folk tale, but a certain predictable blandness sets in long before the end. One gets a little weary of the endless do-wop songs on the soundtrack eulogising life in the Bronx, the voice-over patter telling us about the beauty of the neighbourhood street life, the camera gliding gracefully down past street signs, children at play, and teenagers walking down the street in formation, chewing gum.
Stylistically, De Niro borrows many classic techniques from Scorsese, such as the extensive use of subjective point-of-view shots in slow motion, and the counterpoint of violent scenes with dreamy pop songs. In one memorable scene, which has a Spike Lee touch about it, Sonny's crew decides to kick the butts of a gang of disrespectful bikers. As bones crunch and bodies fly in unbridled confusion, the famous Moody Blues song "Knights in White Satin" plays incongruously over the top. But, for the most part, A Bronx Tale opts less for Scorsese's energetic spontaneity than a fairly studied mode of classicism.
De Niro's filmmaking restraint has its quiet rewards. He structures the film as a drama of territory, where each character has his or her own privileged piece of turf – the hoods have the bar, Dad has his bus, Mom hangs out the kitchen window. Further, everyone is identified by a particular style of music – jazz for Dad, Dino and Frankie for the crims, 'white rock' for Calogero and his mates. Every plot event in the film, big or small, involves a transgression of these territorial lines – Calogero sneaks out from the back door of his home, up dark stairs, and into the bar; Lorenzo boldly enters Sonny's territory to confront him. In one of the most delightful moments of the film, little Calogero goes running off down the street away from his house, only to turn and be greeted by the sight of his father, his head out the first floor window, firmly pointing downwards, as if to command, "you sit on the front step of this place and you never budge!" Later in the story, even the intricacies of how people behave in a car – who gets in first, who opens the door for whom, who sits in the back and so on – becomes a problem of territory, and territorial rules of behaviour.
Eventually, De Niro broadens the territorial lines of the story beyond the one block to include the streets of the entire neighbourhood, and the conflicting zones of the whole city. Once more, the plot hinges on who gets in whose car, what street they dare drive down, what zone they stumble into. A Bronx Tale has a strong racial theme. When a group of black children simply breeze through the white neighbourhood on their bikes en route to school or home, they experience the full, violent force of ugly racism. The African-American characters of the film also have their own sound – that is soul music, naturally – and their own turf (the ghetto). When Calogero reaches his teen years, he precipitates a small territorial war by romantically pursuing a girl named Jane across this physical, racial divide. The scenes between Calogero and Jane, with their mildly transgressive erotic thrill, and their abiding air of physical threat, are certainly the best thing in A Bronx Tale. I can only hope that De Niro manages to be less timid and cautious in his future directorial projects.
© Adrian Martin March 1995