• U.S.

A Fable of Mean Streets

3 minute read
Richard Schickel




THE BOTTOM LINE: De Niro’s debut as a filmmaker portrays a good man and a bad one struggling for an innocent soul.

Lorenzo (Robert De Niro) drives a bus. Back and forth across the Bronx he goes, a dutiful and moral man, passionate about two things: his family and the fate of the New York Yankees. Sonny (played by the teller of this autobiographical tale, Chazz Palminteri) leads a life at once more stationary and more glamorous — at least to Lorenzo’s nine-year-old son Calogero (Francis Capra). Mostly Sonny stands on a corner doing whispered criminal business with colorfully dubious types.

Then one day, in what looks like no more than an argument over a parking space, Sonny kills a man. Little Calogero witnesses the act — and then refuses to identify the murderer to the police. Sonny thereafter takes an interest in the lad, who in turn begins to take an interest in hoodlum life, becoming errand boy, mascot and, as he attains adolescence (when he is played by Lillo Brancato), a possible wiseguy in the making.

We are once again in Scorsese country (circa 1960), a familiar, comfortable place for De Niro to be for his directorial debut. Yet despite their long- running collaboration, De Niro’s manner is not at all Scorsesian. The central conflict, the struggle for Calogero’s soul, is stated with a fable’s starkness. But the tone of the film, perhaps preserved from the performance piece Palminteri originally wrote for himself to play, is musing, reflective, gently insinuating.

This contrast between an essentially harsh environment and the warmth with which it is recalled sets up odd and original reverberations. Among other things, we are reminded that in a not too distant time it was possible for poor people to sustain decent, respectable lives, although crime and violence lived next door. Toward the film’s end, Calogero dares something almost unimaginable for someone of his class and kind: he begins dating a black woman (Taral Hicks) whom he meets in school. Racial violence ensues, but there is also a curious coming together in the conclusion — of his father’s basic decency, of Sonny’s breakaway boldness.

Hicks’ may be the year’s most arresting debut, but Capra and Brancato are also treasurable finds, and De Niro and Palminteri are anchoring presences in a film that is clearly more than a “project” for them. Their caring makes us care too, more than we might have imagined we could.

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