BIG NIGHT *** 1/2
"A Movie To Dine For. Big Night Makes Babette's Feast Look Like Pizza Hut".
There's nothing in the critic's text that corresponds to that headline --or to facts for that matter. Since the reviewers almost never write their headlines, this must have been put in by some kid at the copy desk, some new hiree who needs to see more films, to learn about cuisine and to read more Dave Barry.
The only connection between the superb "Babette" and the excellent --but awkwardly and flatly titled -- "Big Night" is the gastronomic feast that crowns both movies.
Scott and Tucci's film is set in the 1950's (when Cadillacs grew fins) by the Jersey shore. It deals with two brothers who have been in the States for a short time and are trying to make a go of their restaurant, "Paradise."
Primo is the gifted chef who, in spite of the establishment's precarious situation is a purist. He will not tolerate barbaric requests or compromises in his authentic Italian cuisine. Played by an actor with an Arabic-sounding name, Primo looks and sounds entirely Italian, down to the hot temper.
A funny opening scene (with a sad subtext) sets the tone. One of the rare customers does not understand the basics of risotto, wants a side order of spaghetti (another pasta!) and, horrors, wants it with meatballs, which is an American invention.
Younger brother Secondo, is the practical one, the manager who helps in the kitchen (a primitive place that produces wonders) but whose main task is to avoid losing the restaurant to the bank. He's pure of heart yet also a realist who tries to reason with Primo. But the chef sticks to his guns:"If you give people time, they learn." Secondo: " I don't HAVE time." Yet, during the constant, affectionate tension between the two, Primo insists: "If you comp[rpmise with my work, it dies."
Nearby is "The Grotto," one of those Italian eateries where waiters and customers sing, where indifferent, inauthentic food is served, where phony local color prevails, where (as per Primo) food gets raped nightly... and where the cash register keeps ringing. The owner, cynical friend Pascal, is played by that most British actor Ian Holm convincingly transformed into an Italian.
The single real Italian in the film, Isabella Rosselini, plays Gabriella, vaguely the hostess and not vaguely Pascal's mistress.
The brothers are handsome and molto simpatici, Primo in his unloquacious way, Secondo in his natural elegance. They succeed (with, of course, the filmmakers) in making "Big Night" into a genuine Italian movie set in the land of plenty, "plenty" that is, if you conform, adapt and leave ideals behind you.
Secondo goes to Pascal to search for a solution. It's not forthcoming -- until Pascal mentions that the popular band-leader Louis Prima (yes, Virginia, there was such a person) is his pal and that he, Pascal, will arrange for him to come to a special dinner at the Paradise. The resulting PR and publicity will surely bring more customers.
With the brothers investing their last pennies and immense labor, the feast does take place. It's a gathering of friends and new acquaintances, from Pascal to Gabriella, from a nice Cadillac salesman (just met by Secondo under slyly warm circumstances), to a florist lady whom Primo is to shy to court, and so on, down to (or up to) the U.K.'s Minnie Driver ("Circle of Friends") who, as Phyllis, Secondo's girl friend, is amazingly genuine as a Yank. I say "up to" because the ladies all tower above the men, not just the diminutive Ian Holm.
There are two surprises in store. One, I cannot mention without spoiling things. The other is the meal itself, a repast greeted by oohs and aahs by the guests as well as the audience.
The menu, gargantuan and sumptuously delicious, starts with La Zuppa (Soup), goes on to I Primi (First Courses, in the plural), then I Secondi (Second Courses, also plural) and I Dolci (The Sweets). Even if you find a top Italian restaurant you will not encounter the likes of those dishes again, recipes of the pre-cholesterol, pre-fat calories era, all under the sign of the stomach pump. (The brothers are also chain-smokers).
We get to the meal well after one hour of film. It lasts no more than 10 to 15 minutes. Before all this, the movie followed the brothers in their mini-odyssey, especially Secondo. He had taken us for a walk (plus a ride in a Caddy) that, while sometimes a bit unfocused and slow, gave his character dimensionality. Among the asides was an almost hilarious reversal of sex attitudes. Phyllis wants to cuddle, and much more, Secondo reacts like a shy virgin. "I want the time to be right. It is not right for you." Phyllis doesn't get it, while next --surprise!-- we see Secondo in bed with Gabriella.
"Big Night" is studded with nostalgic Italian and Italian-American period music in the background and with sensitive, intelligent touches in the foreground. The dialogue proceeds in shifts, indirections and allusions. Almost incredibly for an "Italian" movie, this one has more pregnant silences than talk and goes easy on loudness and theatricalism. There are also some visuals of Phyllis and others by the sea, which may remind you of Fellini or Antonioni yet are not copycat scenes.
The naturalist tone of the movie seldom abates. It is cannily recorded and splendidly performed, although some bits do push verisimilitude to its limits, notably Secondo's fluid command of the American language, far too unlikely for a recent immigrant. Some of the wines on the banquet table look like Bordeaux bottles. But several other absurdisms are humorous, such as Secondo's linguistic, didactic argument: "You can't say 'It is raining outside,' since rain always falls outside.."
Some gastronomes may find food for thought in the comparative celebrations of Italian cooking and Europe's champion cuisine, the French, that was glorified in "Babette's Feast."
Filmically speaking, "BN"'s dialogue-less ending is a little gem as, the morning after, Secondo makes a simple omelet for himself, his brother and their assistant. The dish, like the mood, is in touching contrast with the earlier, intricate relations, preparations and dreams.
The film won the Sundance Festival's script writing prize. Score another win for Sundance, by now incontestably the breeding and launching grounds for the New Independent America Cinema.