Big Night with Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini. Directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott. The release of this film was preceded by a great deal of discussion and hype surrounding the issue of representation. Big Night has been hailed as the film to finally rescue Italian American identity from the clutches of its usual mold, that of the Mafioso, the hunk, the dumb Dago, Guinea, Wop. Big Night is a story about two restauranteur brothers, Primo and Secondo, who are at the end of their wits and financial rope, and must find a way to rescue their restaurant. Primo, the chef, is discouraged to the point that he is seriously considering his uncle’s offer to join him at his restaurant in Rome. Secondo, more the entrepreneur, is not ready to give in and is in search of alternatives. In dress, manner, and aspirations Secondo is shown to be the more modern, more American, more flexible, more apt to take chances, of the two, and out to become something other than what he is. Primo is reserved, careful about trying new things, less adaptable, and satisfied with his position. Both brothers are honest and hard-working individuals unwilling to compromise their art for material gain. Their nemesis is Pascal, owner of the nearby restaurant by the same name. They, who serve genuine and carefully prepared Italian dishes, are crying for business. Pascal, whose restaurant serves second-rate fare that fulfills lowly stereotypic expectations, offers spaghetti and meatballs and the like, has overflowing business every night. In an apparent moment of altruism, Pascal gives Secondo a glint of hope. He tells Secondo that his friend Louis Prima will be coming to town and that, instead of having him dine at his place he will make it so Primo will dine at their restaurant. This should work to give the place a reputation that will attract hordes of customers. Secondo accepts, without telling Primo of the agreement with Pascal, knowing that Primo would not accept. And so begin the preparations for the “big night.” It is through the process of collecting the materials for this special dinner, which will center around the production of a timpano (timballo), a dish that acquires its own cultural 15 minutes of fame as a result of the film, that we get a little insight into the lives of Primo and Secondo. Both brothers have women they like. Primo likes the local florist, but is too shy to even invite her to the dinner. Secondo has a tall, red-haired girlfriend to whom he is reluctant to commit: “Is this your fiance?” asks Pascal “No, no” answers Secondo hesitantly. Secondo is also unfaithful. He is in fact having an affair with Pascal’s companion, Gabriella (played by Isabella Rossellini). Primo is absorbed by the business of the dinner and by a more realistic take on it. He calls his uncle in Italy to see if his offer is still standing, just in case. Secondo, on the other hand, is very optimistic about the future that this dinner will bring. On his way to buy certain ingredients he stops by Gabriella’s apartment, and he takes time to test-drive a Cadillac (an act that implies his optimism and blind faith in the promises of others). On the night of the dinner, with the food nearing readiness, and the waiting getting to be too much, it all must begin without Louis Prima. As the night progresses it becomes clear that Prima will not show. Eventually Gabriella lets it be known that it was all a jealous ruse on Pascal’s part to sink the brothers even deeper into debt and eliminate the competition. Pascal’s false friendship blinded Secondo and, when Primo finds out what has gone on, he and Secondo argue bitterly and lay bare their differences. Trust has been broken between the two brothers and it will be hard to mend. But there is nothing stronger than family ties (at list in the realm of Italian American values and imaginary), which guarantees that the brothers will somewhere, somehow reconnect. There is no better place for a reconciliation that the kitchen itself. As morning breaks, the film closes with perhaps its best scene. Secondo walks into the kitchen to make a frittata, which he cuts into three parts when it’s done. To this he adds bread and he and the waiter begin to eat. As Primo walks in Secondo hands him the third piece. The waiter leaves the kitchen and the two brothers are left alone in silence. Primo and Secondo eat side by side. As they sit there Secondo reaches across and lays his free arm across his brother’s shoulders. Primo, encouraged by this act of affection, reciprocates and the film closes with the two brothers still eating, but in a distant embrace. This film has been heralded as the long-awaited piece that would rescue Italian Americans from the quagmire of negative typification. While I will not argue with the touching story of these two brothers and their immigrant experience, the fact is that it’s not so much that this film resists negative stereotypes through the presentation of alternative, but that it looks the other way. Or, at least, it asks us to look the other way. If we take the topic that most irks Italian Americans in film, the Mafia, its non-presence in the environment in which the film takes place should send up signals. And, if we don’t want to make a direct link between the restaurant and entertainment business and the Mafia, then we must view Pascal as a representative of a certain “modo di fare” that is mafioso. Pascal wields a certain amount of power through which he is able to give favours, and to renege on his favour if he likes. His position, but most importantly the Pilaggi brothers non -status, emphasizes Pascal’s territorial one-upmanship. Pascal also has standing as an immigrant of previous arrival to Primo and Secondo’s, and therefore is to be reckoned with as the more “furbo” and Americanized businessman. Beyond this, and if we want to discard any allusion at the Mafia all-together, we must face some other realities. Are Italian Americans only upset by Mafia characterizations? Womanizing and adultery, a very common stereotype in the depiction of Italians, doesn’t seem to upset Italian Americans. It’s never come up in a discussion of this or any other film that I can remember as a typification that should be fought against. Lying, cheating, and conniving also seem to be absent from the list of things to be guarded against. All we seem to hear is that thank God, finally a film in which there is no Mafia. Well, what about the things I noted above? They are all present in Big Night, yet no one has commented on them. Or are we still so insecure as to have to put on show that Italian American men are so virile that womanizing and adultery are acceptable because they are in our nature. And are lying and cheatin acceptable because of our philosophy of “‘ca nisciun’è fesso!” that leads to underhanded ways of dealing with others?
Antonio Porta site
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