A gentle turn off the mean streets

"A Bronx Tale" is not the journey on the mean streets of New York that you might expect. Though it's a story about mobsters directed by and starring Robert De Niro, it's not the sort of visceral drama for which Martin Scorsese, Mr. De Niro's frequent collaborator, is renowned. Though there are a few violent scenes, there's also a disarmingly gentle sense of humor and some moments that can only be described as, well, sweet.

Moreover, for his directorial debut, Mr. De Niro elected to cast many of the roles with non-professional performers. In other words, one of the finest actors working today didn't trust this material with actors.


"I think in this piece you had to use non-professionals -- it gives it that extra something," Mr. De Niro said in a interview during the Toronto Film Festival, where "A Bronx Tale" won second place among 300 films in the Audience Favorite Awards.

"You didn't want to use actors who would want to put a spin on something, you needed real people with no preconceived idea or affectations. They didn't think that way. I didn't have to tone people down with ideas of 'acting' . . . If they had any awkwardness, it would work for them, it'd help authenticate their natures."


In the film, Mr. De Niro stars as Lorenzo, a blue-collar bus driver struggling to keep his son Calogero (Francis Capra as a young boy, Lillo Brancato as a teen) from being seduced by the easy-money world of the local wiseguy Sonny (Chazz Palminteri, who adapted the script from his own stage play). The story is related from Calogero's point of view, as he is torn not only between his father's work ethic and Sonny's charisma, but he also must sort out his feelings between his neighborhood buddies' racism and his attraction for a young African-American woman (Taral Hicks).

Mr. Palminteri borrowed moments from his own life to create "A Bronx Tale," moments that both he and Mr. De Niro could relate to growing up as Italian-Americans in New York.

"I did witness a murder [as Calogero does], my dad was a bus driver, I did have a relationship with a black girl," Mr. Palminteri said. "Just growing up in that neighborhood -- I love that neighborhood, but you can go wrong very easily. Bad guys and good guys would hang out together on the corner. It wasn't like the bad guys were here and the good guys were over there. So you could get into trouble at any moment."

After Mr. Palminteri performed the piece as a one-man show, Hollywood came calling, but he would allow the film to be made only on his terms.

"A lot of directors wanted to do it, but it was up to me to pick the guy," Mr. Palminteri recalled. "I was having a tough time with the studios;they didn't want me in the movie. They wanted a big star in the movie. They like me, but who was I to them? But I was in the position that no one would do the movie without me, period. But when I met Bob, I had this sense that he'd be the right guy."

Their similar backgrounds "mean a lot. A lot of times we'd just talk about our neighborhoods, and there was a camaraderie there."

Added Mr. De Niro, "Chazz knew the world and where he came from, and I knew a lot of it, so I figured that between us we'd come up with something pretty honest."

De Niro's art -- his edgy, wired performances such as those in "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "Cape Fear" -- could be said to have come from the conflicting influences of his upbringing. His parents were artists -- his father, Robert De Niro Sr. (to whom the film is dedicated), was an abstract expressionist; his mother also was a painter -- and helped temper his take on life in the streets with the wiseguys.


"They really influenced me in terms of developing my sense of taste," he said of his parents. "I can't explain it without sounding sweeping. But I've had experiences like [those in "A Bronx Tale"]. "Kids I knew were under the influence of guys like Sonny, so I knew what that was about."

Though Mr. De Niro worked with Mr. Scorsese on two of his most celebrated films -- "Mean Streets" and "Goodfellas," both about the mob -- the fledgling director was determined not to copy his mentor in his behind-the-camera style.

"Marty and I have done movies that are very similar to this, and that was something I considered," Mr. De Niro said. "But when I saw the play and read the script, this was very specific, Chazz knew that world and was telling his story. It stood on its own and had a different feel to it. It had a right to be told in its own way. I wasn't too concerned with cinematic style as I was interested in the people, and getting the right people [to play the characters], because without the right people, you don't have the story. I had to fill it with the right characters. Getting the right people was 90 percent of it.

"I was never aware of camera work so much," he continued. "When I was younger, I was less concerned with the camera. And when I worked with directors who had more of a florid camera style, I'd be concerned, because it wasn't about the scene, it was about the camera work."

Mr. Palminteri added, "Literally, if he thought he was doing something the way Marty would do it, he wouldn't do it.

"He approaches his directing the same way he approaches working, with the same intense, perfectionist, fanatical way. It's got to be right. He'd come on the set and look at the knot in someone's tie and say, 'What is this knot -- this knot is wrong.' "


At one point, Mr. Palminteri recalled, Mr. De Niro's quest for realism gave both men pause for concern. An eternally beleaguered gambler named Eddie Mush is played in the film by Eddie Montanaro, the man upon whom Mr. Palminteri based the character.

"When we found him, he was still losing bets," Mr. Palminteri said, laughing. "After we cast him, Bob and I got real nervous, we though he would jinx the movie. We thought we would have a flop on our hands. The first day he was on the set, it rained and we couldn't shoot what was on the schedule, and I thought, 'Oh God, it's the curse, here it comes.' "

They survived, of course, and Mr. De Niro said he's itching to direct again. He's negotiating for "Oleana," David Mamet's controversial stage drama about sexual harassment.