This gritty depiction of life in The Bronx, New York throughout the 60’s is told from the perspective of a young poor white boy who’s spent his life living next door to his idols at the local Mob hangout, and also serves as directorial debut for legendary actor Robert De Niro (also starring as the boy’s hardworking father).
Giving away as few plot points as possible, the story sees Calogero (Lillo Brancato) or “C” as he’s more often known in the film getting by in life guided by two fatherly figures, one being his honest and hardworking biological father (De Niro), the other being Mafia boss Sonny portrayed by Chazz Palminteri, the latter of whom interestingly actually wrote the film which is based upon his own childhood.
The film focuses on certain key topics that were especially of cultural interest during the 60’s (when the film is set) for example social class is a key aspect as we see people from poorer backgrounds struggle with decisions regarding working for criminals as a means of making money to live, another issue raised throughout the film is racial hatred and stigma surrounding multi-cultural relationships at the time. Strong discrimination against people of Afro-Caribbean descent eventually comes to a climactic head towards the end of the film, however it’s also shown by this point that some of the characters are beginning to hold changing opinions, perhaps which helps address issues of racism as well as reminding the audience that the film was made in the mid nineties, a time when racial hatred is more frowned upon, showing these characters are becoming more modern and changing with the times. An important and moral question posed throughout the film by both father figures is what’s to be preferred, to be loved or to be feared. This is an idea explored during the entirety of the film.
C idolises Sonny and the other mobsters for his entire childhood and goes unnoticed until one day their freedom relies on him and even at the age of eight he’s aware of this, ever since the two have shared an understanding. Sonny holds a genuine interest in the kid and treats him as his own son (much to the dismay of his own father). Despite their rivalry C’s father and Sonny both want the best for him, and both try to teach him the same lessons in life; they do however act upon this in totally different ways of course. Despite his mobster background, Sonny tries to protect C from this life, and tries to persuade him to go to school and do well for himself. We as an audience care a lot more for hard-man Sonny because of his genuine affection for C as opposed to him just being mere business. This enables us to see both sides to his character as we see him attempt to keep C away from violence and trouble despite having him living within the same social circles.
De Niro directs the film in a way which has a fresh feeling at the same time as being slightly reminiscent of ‘Goodfellas’ the Martin Scorsese gangster feature in which he starred only two years prior to this. He makes use of voiceover techniques to tell the tale, as “C” serves almost as a commentator to what we as an audience are seeing on the screen. This narrative is utilised throughout the film from C witnessing some shocking violence outside of his home at the young age of eight (if you’ve never seen the film and intend to, pay attention during this part in the film, it does bare significance later on), to the lead up to witnessing yet another emotional and final act of violence in the film when he’s grown into a young man and dear friend of Mob boss Sonny. De Niro’s direction also sees the film littered with 50’s and 60’s doo-wop tracks adding further to the film’s authenticity as the music used mostly originated from the African-American communities in New York during this period, who feature largely in the film. The film despite being primarily a mafia drama and coming of age tale, it also has an emotional impact containing its fair share of laughs, as well as numerous downbeat occasions provoking sadness in the audience, most notably events nearing the end of the film.
This simple coming of age story of an impressionable youngster is remarkably well executed and the film showcases De Niro’s ability to provide with skill direction as well as acting, and also provides the first notable role of then youngster Lillo Brancato who’s since gone on to feature in other films and TV shows including another gangster hit “The Sopranos”. I rate this film a strong 7 out of 10!