Back to the Bronx

Robert De Niro looks back at A Bronx Tale, 20 years on.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

First Time Fest co-founders Johanna Bennett and Mandy Ward with the director of A Bronx Tale Robert De Niro at the 20th anniversary screening.
First Time Fest co-founders Johanna Bennett and Mandy Ward with the director of A Bronx Tale Robert De Niro at the 20th anniversary screening. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival Robert De Niro joined First Time Fest co-founders Johanna Bennett and Mandy Ward for a 20th anniversary screening of De Niro's directorial debut A Bronx Tale on February 24, 2014 in New York at the Village East Cinema. The film stars De Niro and Chazz Palminteri, who wrote the screenplay based on his one man show.

Robert De Niro's A Bronx Tale - First Time Fest and Tribeca Film Institute
Robert De Niro's A Bronx Tale - First Time Fest and Tribeca Film Institute Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The evening, held as a joint benefit for the Tribeca Film Institute and First Time Fest, began with a cocktail reception. Kathrine Narducci (Rosina Anello in A Bronx Tale), Tony Bennett, Grace Hightower, and my fellow inaugural First Time Fest juror, author Gay Talese, walked the red carpet in support of the ventures. Martin Scorsese had presented a Tony Bennett drawing to Darren Aronofsky along with the John Huston Award for Achievement in Cinema at last year's First Time Fest.

In A Bronx Tale, Robert De Niro plays bus driver Lorenzo Anello whose young son witnesses a shooting that acts as the catalyst for the boy's relationship with Sonny LoSpecchio portrayed by Chazz Palminteri, the man who controls the neighborhood where they live. "Sonny, in my neighborhood, he was a god," we hear from the little boy in voice over at the start of the movie while we see the children jump on each other's backs to play Johnny-On-The-Pony to the rhythm of the music.

Kathrine Narducci (Rosina Anello in A Bronx Tale)
Kathrine Narducci (Rosina Anello in A Bronx Tale) Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Palminteri was scheduled to participate in the post screening discussion with De Niro and was unable to attend, due to a bout of food poisoning. David Schwartz, artistic director of First Time Fest, stepped in for him.

Robert De Niro spoke about how it all came about. De Niro recalled seeing the play in 1990 and expressed immediate interest in requiring the rights for a filmed version of A Bronx Tale which is based on Chazz Palminteri's childhood. "At the end of the day", said De Niro, to get the project made, they needed a name attached " to hedge their bets - and they’ll probably come to me." Palminteri wanted to play Sonny and De Niro promised him he would.

De Niro talked about working with kids (Francis Capra as Calogero 'C' Anello, age 9 and Lillo Brancato as Calogero 'C' Anello age 17). Working with non-actors could be tricky and he was amazed how Capra, at the age of 12, understood so much.

When an actor directs actors, they do their best, they give their best performances. For the kids he wanted them to be from the neighborhood. "I got the kids who understand that world," De Niro said. "These kids who are 14, 15, 16, they want to be men. In that culture they want to be grown ups, they want to be adults."

Martin Scorsese presented a Tony Bennett drawing to Darren Aronofsky at last year's First Time Fest.
Martin Scorsese presented a Tony Bennett drawing to Darren Aronofsky at last year's First Time Fest. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

"This is the Fordham section of the Bronx" the film starts. "That's my church. It was 1960. Doo-wop was the sound on the street".

The Bronx of the movie was actually filmed in Astoria, Queens. "That's how it was," said De Niro about the charm of the set, and David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens joked that the transformation was bitterly missed once the streets of Astoria were back to normal.

Gay Talese asked the first question from the audience. "You produced a film of history," he said and wondered,"Is there anything alive of the conflict? In 2014 is there anything left in that place in the heads of those people?"

"Definitely," De Niro responded. "Chazz would have been able to tell you where those characters are today. That's another movie."

A Bronx Tale is a movie that aged well. The care and specificity with which De Niro handled the subject draw up something universal. At nine years old a boy realises he did "a good thing for a bad man." A god to him, whose hand gestures he copied -"Sonny had five fingers but he only used three" - falls down to earth, becomes vulnerable, notices him, gives the boy power that comes with a price.

Tony Bennett, Johanna Bennett, Robert De Niro, Mandy Ward, Grace Hightower on the red carpet.
Tony Bennett, Johanna Bennett, Robert De Niro, Mandy Ward, Grace Hightower on the red carpet. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Sonny renames him from Calogero to 'C'. The kid rolls the dice. A conversation at the Aqueduct Racetrack with Sonny in 1968 changes his relationship to baseball.

He even understands the core of religion: "It was great to be Catholic and go to confession - you could start over every week." In a great scene, the boy names his transgressions to a priest. Eating meat on Friday on equal footing makes up the list of sins, together with witnessing a murder and lying to the police about it.

For the teenage "C", race enters his world one day in the shape of a girl on the bus driven by his father: "She was tall, she was beautiful, she was classy - but she was black." Sonny talks to him about Machiavelli and availability. Being loved or feared or respected or hated are alternatives the boy questions when he is torn between his two father figures and tries to make up his mind what kind of a person he himself wants to be.

De Niro, who dedicated the film to his own father, says to his son in the movie that "the saddest thing is wasted talent" and when he is older, he would understand.

Robert De Niro on getting A Bronx Tale made: "They hedged their bets - and it would be me."
Robert De Niro on getting A Bronx Tale made: "They hedged their bets - and it would be me." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

During the Q&A, an acting student asked De Niro about the "dangers" of method acting. Someone losing their mind from an acting technique, because they got so "involved in their role" is not something to worry about, De Niro said. "I’ve never seen that ever. Never - ever," he told the young man. "At the end of the day actors use whatever works for them".

"Tribeca Film Institute champions storytellers to be catalysts for change in their communities and around the world. Through grants and professional development programs, TFI supports a diverse, exceptional group of filmmakers and media artists, providing them resources needed to fully realise their stories and connect with audiences. The Institute’s educational programming leverages an extensive film community network to help underserved New York City students learn filmmaking and gain the media skills necessary to be productive citizens and creative individuals in the 21st century. Featuring hands-on training and exposure to socially relevant films, the Institute administers programs to more than 25,000 students annually."

First Time Fest the second time around runs from April 3 - 7 screening first films from new filmmakers and the debut works of prominent filmmakers. The 13th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival is being held from April 16 - 27.

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