For all his grit and dazzle as an actor, Robert De Niro has never been a very warm performer. He has often seemed lost playing anyone besides brutal freaks or psychopaths, men who live to butt heads. The happy surprise of A Bronx Tale (R), De Niro’s directorial debut, is not just that he proves a savvy, accomplished filmmaker, but that his work is distinguished by its compassion and emotional breadth, the very qualities missing from his most famous characters.
Not that he’s abandoned his roots. Set in a close-knit New York Italian neighborhood during the 1960s, A Bronx Tale is an unabashed journey down the mean streets of Scorseseland, a kind of Gospel According to St. Marty. The hero, Cologero Anello (played by two different actors, Francis Capra and Lillo Brancato, at ages 9 and 17), is a handsome Italian-American youth who’s like a little brother to the Ray Liotta character in GoodFellas: He has been raised amid the local fraternity of street-corner gamblers and mobsters, and he can’t resist their scrungy glamour. In particular, he idolizes Sonny (Chazz Palminteri), the imperious crime boss, a man who gets anything he wants with a wave of his hand. Cologero can’t see what his honest bus-driver father, Lorenzo (De Niro), can: that the easy-living Sonny, in his natty silk suits, is a petty dictator who rules by fear, and that his wads of cash are really blood money.
De Niro establishes this neighborhood in such vibrant, loving detail—the young boys hanging out on the stoop, the horse-cart peddler, the loafers and gamblers—that even the most familiar aspects of the movie take on a freshly minted glow. As Cologero rides on his father’s bus route, the two chewing over their passion for the Yankees, the movie creates an honest nostalgia for the time of life when a parent’s love seemed all-enveloping.
Yet it’s the bad guy who wins the charisma contest. Palminteri, a veteran stage and television actor, also wrote the script (it’s based on his autobiographical one-man play), and his scary, magnetic performance as Sonny anchors the movie. Looking like a svelte Italian Powers Boothe, Palminteri evokes the fierce personal lure—and wormy soul—of a strutting neighborhood fascist. Cologero watches Sonny commit a murder and then refuses to rat on him to the police. From that moment on, the mobster becomes his dark paternal surrogate. The dramatic toughness of A Bronx Tale—what saves the film from being moralistic—is that we see how Sonny, in his very recklessness and villainy, makes Cologero’s proud, decent father seem like a fuddy-duddy. That the boy comes under the mobster’s violent spell, tuning out his pop’s fervid . lectures about the dignity of the workingman, only makes De Niro’s performance that much more moving. This is some of his most quietly effective acting in years.
Cologero really belongs to two families: his own loving, conservative one; and the clan of the neighborhood, the place where things happen. At one point, Sonny and his boys beat the hell out of a crew of long-haired bikers. Scored to the doo-wop strains of ”Ten Commandments of Love,” the scene is genuinely Scorsesean in the way it invites us to revel in the pride of brute masculinity even as we see the horror it inflicts.
Engrossing as it often is, A Bronx Tale could have used a more vivid hero. As the teenage Cologero, or ”C” for short, Brancato, clothed in an outfit just like the one De Niro wore 20 years ago in Mean Streets, has an authentic street-tough wariness, but the character has been conceived as too much of an observer (a common flaw in coming-of-age movies). When Cologero goes against the grain of his upbringing by wooing Jane (Taral Hicks), a pretty black teenager, the film gains dramatic momentum, as De Niro evokes the tribal tensions between Italians and blacks. Yet the romance itself is resolved in a pat West Side Story way, and there’s one terribly unconvincing moment in which Jane, having the day before heard Cologero dismiss her brother as a ”nigger,” takes him back as if nothing had happened. Still, these are rare false notes in a movie of vitality and flair. Give De Niro credit: He gets enough right in this Tale to make you hope it isn’t his last. B