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By Anthony Reyes.
“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
Almost 25 years after its release, Robert De Niro’s A Bronx Tale remains one of the most poignant coming of age dramas in cinema history.
As movies have shown us, there are many ways to grow up in America. While films such as Stand By Me, Dazed and Confused, and The Breakfast Club have portrayed the experience of growing up in small town America wonderfully, coming of age dramas set in urban areas are almost its own genre. Being a young kid in the city would be a hard time for anyone, and A Bronx Tale puts its own spin on the concept by portraying the life of people living in the Bronx, New York in the 1960s. The film’s inclusion of themes such as racism, the gangster lifestyle, and what it means to be a man are ideas that are universal, and continue to touch audiences after all these years.
Based on Chazz Palminteri’s own experiences growing up in the Bronx, A Bronx Tale centers around young Calogero, an impressionable nine-year-old kid who lives on his stoop located only a few doors down from a hangout for the local mafia. He spends his days fooling around with his friends, riding the bus his blue-collar father Lorenzo, played by Robert De Niro, drives for a living, and idolizing Sonny, played by Chazz Palminteri, the mobster next door who is the epitome of everything Calogero looks up to. After witnessing a crime and standing by Sonny to the police, Calogero becomes close with Sonny. Years later, the relationship between Calogero and Sonny strengthens, with Calogero regularly coming to Sonny for advice on life and women to his father’s dismay. Only after experiencing the many highs and lows of life does Calogero make sense of what both men in his life have been telling him.
In one of the more emotional exchanges between father and son in A Bronx Tale, Lorenzo tries to explain to Calogero why Sonny is not a good person to look up to.
With tears in his eyes, all Calogero could say is “I don’t understand Dad.” Like any father, Lorenzo picks up his son, comforts him in his arms, and whispers, “You will when you’re older”. That is such an easy idea to breeze by, but it is integral to the entire arc of this film. It solidifies A Bronx Tale as a coming of age story, instead of the gangster film many paint it as. At the end of the film, Calogero tells the audience that he finally understands everything his father had been teaching him. The viewer sees a boy grow into a man, a man who knows what life expects of him. This film is filled with these kinds of lessons. People quote A Bronx Tale all the time because the magic of the film is in the way these two men talk to Calogero. One man is a hard-working family man, devoted to his wife and kid. The other is a gangster making his way up the crime ladder. But when they talk to Calogero one on one, they talk intimately. They forget all that is wrong with their lives when they look at this boy’s face and try to tell him how the world works. A Bronx Tale blurs the line of who is wrong and who is right, but what is clear is that Calogero is lucky to have them both in his life.
The dichotomy of Sonny the gangster and Lorenzo the family man symbolizes the internal struggle that Calogero goes through throughout A Bronx Tale. He sees his father work day after day just to afford a small apartment and enough food to get by. And while he admires and looks up to his father, which can be seen in the way he sits on his father’s bus and talks to him, he cannot help but continue to look at Sonny. He sees how everybody in the neighborhood respects Sonny. How they listen to him and protect him. In Calogero’s young mind, he believes that the way Sonny is respected is on the same level as to how Lorenzo is respected. “Everybody loves him, just like everybody loves you on the bus. It’s the same thing.” says Calogero to his father. And if you are respected either way, why waste his life like Lorenzo does working for someone else? As he gets older, Calogero has no interest in being a working man like his father, in being a sucker. His source of inspiration is Sonny, a man who has everything, who takes what he wants. It is not until he sees that it is fear that keeps people loyal to Sonny that he understands what his father has been telling him all his life. It is not until he sees that Sonny cannot trust another living soul that Calogero understands that he does not want to be like Sonny. One of Lorenzo’s most important lessons to his son is “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” Sonny is the epitome of that lesson. Calogero is the person that knew him best. He saw Sonny as not only the mob boss that he was, but as a romantic who created the “door test”, an intellect who read Machiavelli in prison, and as a father figure who truly cared for Calogero. Sonny could have been a wonderful person to so many people, but he wasted his talent. And Calogero finally understood that as he was standing over his body at the funeral home. Sonny was a wasted talent, and Calogero knew that he did not want to end up like him.
Aside for the drama that comes with coming of age films, one of the most important aspects of A Bronx Tale is establishing the home of Calogero. The film opens on an aerial view of New York City. Just when the viewer thinks that the film will be just another New York film, the camera pans slowly. There is a crossfade that focuses on the Bronx as Calogero’s voice explains that what the viewer is looking at is the Fordham section of the Bronx, his home. He explains that although the Bronx is a borough of a much larger city, it encapsulates his whole world. Not only do we see the streets of the neighborhood of Belmont and hear Calogero talk about the home he loved dearly, but we hear a doo wop group singing “The Streets of the Bronx”, fully establishing the sense of nostalgia that Calogero feels. The Bronx. The corner of 187th St. and Belmont Avenue. Our Lady of Mount Carmel church. City Island. Webster Avenue. The whole film treats the Bronx as its own character, and as a person who was born and raised in the Bronx, it is emotional to see the tenderness that De Niro and Palminteri has for the borough. The Bronx is a part of Calogero. He would not be the same person if he lived anywhere else. From the opening voiceover narration, the romance he feels in his heart for the Bronx is what brings the viewer in and allows them to fully appreciate the world of the film.
The lessons of A Bronx Tale do not stop at Calogero learning how to become a man and to use his talents for good.
Throughout the film, Calogero learns about the world around him, including the racist habits of his friends and family that poisons his mind. The neighborhood Calogero lives in is an historically Italian-American neighborhood, which can be seen throughout A Bronx Tale. But what can also be seen is the tension between the Italian-Americans of Belmont Avenue and the African-Americans of Webster Avenue. Severe racism towards blacks practiced by Italian Americans is not a new concept in America, nor is it in American cinema. Many films that center around Italian Americans have made it a point to share the racist tendencies of their subjects such as in The Godfather when they agree to only sell drugs to blacks because “they’re animals already. Let them destroy themselves.” Robert De Niro uses that reality to further the tension between Calogero and the two father figures in his life. When Calogero falls for a black girl he meets on his father’s bus, he hesitates from following his heart. Because he knows the crap he would get from his friends, whom the viewer has already seen throw sticks at black kids on buses and run after black kids riding bikes down their neighborhood. Even Calogero’s father, while he does not approve of people being disrespectful to each other, expresses his desire for his son to be with an Italian girl instead of a black girl. It is actually Sonny who tells Calogero to forget about stupid things like race. The only thing that matters is how two people feel about each other. It is the gangster that tells Calogero to forget about a hatred shared by his whole neighborhood when it comes to love. By the end of the film, Calogero sees the result of such hatred and is a changed person because of it. He embraces this girl and allows himself to be a better person for her.
Robert De Niro’s A Bronx Tale is an important film for so many reasons. It is a coming of age drama about a kid trying to decide between two paths put in front of him. That is what the whole circles around, the choices that Calogero makes. He is the dynamic character that we follow and observe. It is his decisions that decide where the film is going to go. And behind every decision he makes, we understand why he makes them. It is a wonderful thing to witness a boy become a man and discover how he must live his life. To ignore the temptations of the criminal life that wasted Sonny’s life and choose a life where you do not have to keep looking over your shoulder seems like an easy decision, but A Bronx Tale proves the cost of learning that lesson. This film is a gem of American cinema, because it has America written all over it. Lorenzo talks about his family immigrating from Italy to New York. Calogero and his father obsess over jazz, doo wop, and baseball. Sonny represents the mafia presence of the era, especially in the Bronx. Not only is this story a Bronx tale, but it is an American tale. A tale that shows how tough it is for kids to grow up and make right choices. Because the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.