Robert De Niro’s directorial debut comes to Blu, as he tells us the story of a young boy caught between two different father figures.
C (Francis Capra and Lillo Brancato) is a kid growing up in the Bronx with loving but stern father Lorenzo (Robert De Niro). When C witnesses a murder by local gangster Sonny (Chazz Palminteri), he decides not to rat Sonny out and in doing so, Sonny takes a liking to him. C grows up being influenced by two very different presences in his life, yet the two are more alike than may have been thought. They both love C and want him to rise above the area and become something more.
Actors turning director can be a dicey proposition, but in sometimes can work out incredibly well. For every Denzel Washington, there’s a Clint Eastwood or a Ron Howard; people who have made films which are generally held up as very well-made productions. Robert De Niro hasn’t been nearly as prolific as those two, having only directed two features, this and his CIA tale The Good Shepherd – on the evidence of that latter film I was fairly glad he hadn’t done more, it being a bit of a slog. With A Bronx Tale, it’s fairly easy to see why it’s not talked about more It stands in the shadow of another, rather obvious, filmmaker, but it has an awful lot to recommend and should certainly be worth a visit by those who haven’t yet taken a chance on it.
Based on a stage play by co-star Chazz Palminteri, right from the off you can tell that this is a highly personal work for both him and De Niro. There is a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude which immediately identifies this as part of a specific era, with filmmaking which at-times breaks the fourth wall (one particular sequence with kids seemingly singing right into the camera being a specific example), it makes you feel like you are living and breathing the Bronx. Full of kids sitting on stoops, nosey women peering out of windows and, to say the least, strong language, it’s a film that doesn’t make you want to live there but perfectly captures a sense of nostalgia. That said, nostalgia does perhaps rear its head a little too much, the increasing presence of a Doo-Wop group not only on the soundtrack but in the film itself feeling like maybe a step too far.
That’s not to say the film is particularly charitable about the area though. The film is a little “busy” in its construction and moves away from the dueling influences of the first half towards a rather more politically motivated tale about how racism can end up ruining everyone’s lives, not just those getting the abuse. While this subject matter isn’t as engaging as the events of the first half, it’s still pretty fantastic stuff as C seems to sink lower and lower while knowing that those he hangs out with will only plunge him into further darkness. C is a character who has been brought up knowing that the way to get ahead is to be educated both in class and on the street, and this marks him out as being a more well-rounded young man than those around him. While De Niro’s character takes an unwelcome backseat as the film goes on, Palmienteri takes the reins and dishes out some fantastic words of advice, though not much on race, he instead letting C figure it all out for himself. Never quite screaming its point at you, the film has a lot to say on the subject though sometimes it is rather jarringly added in.
The earlier clashes of ideology are more successfully depicted, though conversely they are also more expected and so maybe doesn’t intrigue as much. De Niro fantastically pulls off the working man who tries to do right, never flashy, certainly not perfect (not sharing the egalitarian views of Sonny certainly) but his sense of hurt and heartbreak is wonderfully done and De Niro as director is very unselfish in not giving himself anything too “big”. His showdowns with Sonny are restrained and more meaningful for it. Palimenteri combines the threat of a man in his position with a sense of being a wiser head than those around him perfectly. He’s not the typical gangster prone to fits of rage and uncontrollable anger; instead while an act of violence begins his arc, it doesn’t define his character and that’s not something you see every day. Through this, you can see why C comes to love him the way he does, finding a kind of middle ground between the two fathers. Francis Capra and Lillo Brancato are also fantastic as C, Capra playing up the sense that C is always taking things in, always learning before Brancato, who looks so much like a young De Niro its at times actually a bit creepy, knocks it out of the park with a character who feels like he has come from two worlds, fitting into both but never quite feeling like he belongs. It’s a great performance and one which should have heralded a bright career, which sadly never happened.
My only major problem with the film isn’t even so much as a problem as something you have to get past. De Niro does fall back on many of the things which his great friend Scorsese was doing with his films at the time and it does hurt it a little. I can see that at the time people would have decried this as lazy and derivative and with a pop-filled soundtrack, extensive voiceover and a set of colourful Italian characters it would be easy on a surface level to see why. However, the story being told here is very different, it being a more personal tale of a young man trying to find his place, make a mark for himself and decide who he wants to be, something not being tackled by Scorsese in the early ’90s.
A Bronx Tale is a more intimate, personal film than you may expect, with great performances and unfussy direction from Robert De Niro and earns an easy recommendation from me.
Moving onto the Blu-Ray itself, StudioCanal bring the film to us with a 1785:1 1080p transfer which looks OK generally. Using a very clean print with few instances of dirt, though DNR is being applied here at times which while not coming out like the infamous Predator Blu from a couple of years ago, still looks pretty bad whenever people on screen are in focus, no real detail in faces being apparent, though the film looks fine when just doing establishing shots . Audio comes from an uncompressed PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack which serves perfectly well without ever blowing any doors off. A highly involved 5.1 soundtrack wouldn’t really feel too appropriate for this though so it would be unfair to complain. Extras are few and far between with a generic EPK looking thing running just over 5 minutes and not doing much more than general cursory information and a trailer. That’s your lot.
A Bronx Tale is out through StudioCanal on Monday 18th June.