MOTW: Lessons from the Neighborhood Mobster: Quotes from "A Bronx Tale"

Photo Credit: Savoy Pictures
April 24th, 2013

MOTW: Lessons from the Neighborhood Mobster: Famous Quotes from "A Bronx Tale"

-- Some movies are simply feel-good entertainment and easily work their way into the collective hearts of filmgoers. "A Bronx Tale," released in 1993, is one such film, and it also furthered the careers of legendary Italian-American actors Robert De Niro and Chazz Palminteri. While both men had been acting for years, "A Bronx Tale" was Palminteri's debut as a screenwriter and De Niro's first directorial work. Lightweight acting and predictable dialogue don't stop this movie from leaving its mark. The plot is occasionally sprinkled with thoughtful moments that evaluate conflicting viewpoints about truthfulness, racism, social pressure, violence, and even religion.

True to its name, the movie takes place during the 1960s in an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, where local mobster Sonny LoSpecchio (Palminteri) calls the shots. The movie is loosely inspired by Palminteri's one-act play by the same name, which was derived from the actor's personal experiences growing up in the Bronx. As a child, the main character, Calogero Anello (Francis Capra; played as a teenager by Lillo Brancato), sees Sonny committing a murder. When questioned by the police, Calogero insists he saw nothing, taking cues from his normally strait-laced father, Lorenzo (de Niro). This simple childhood act launches a friendship between Calogero and Sonny that Lorenzo continually opposes in hopes of keeping his son from pursuing a dangerous lifestyle.

After the murder, Calogero is overcome with guilt and questions his father about bending the rules of right and wrong. Since Lorenzo is considered the honorable influence throughout the story, this early conversation launches a major theme of compromising values and developing individual codes of conduct. When Calogero confesses his dishonesty to the local priest, the man encourages him not to fear anyone more than God. Without missing a beat, Calogero replies: "Your guy may be bigger than my guy up there, but my guy is bigger than your guy down here."

Despite his young age, Calogero soon recognizes how environmental factors can drastically outweigh morals and learns the necessity of following the status quo to protect family. Even the priest agrees with Calogero, adding to the idea that religion is sometimes forced to take a back seat to cultural expectations.

From the opening moments of the film, viewers observe a setting rife with contrast. In the early scenes, good times abound. Men are grilling food on the streets and shining their shoes. Children run about freely as impromptu baseball games take place. A group of women wearing identical cat-eye sunglasses stop their car to flirt with handsome pedestrians. At the same time, crime and debauchery are clearly present and are centered at the local bar where Sonny's gang convenes. Calogero travels between both worlds, and Lorenzo desperately tries to prevent his son from crossing too far into Sonny's dealings.

When Calogero refers to working men as suckers, Lorenzo responds: "It don't take much strength to pull a trigger, but try to get up every morning day after day and work for a living...The working man is the tough guy." Lorenzo and Sonny both serve as mentor figures and frequently fight over the correct way to guide Calogero. This ongoing conflict reshapes Calogero's growth throughout the movie, showing the flaws in each man's logic and how he expresses toughness. While Lorenzo exhibits a degree of fearfulness toward Sonny, he fearlessly confronts the mob boss when it comes to safeguarding his son. On the other hand, Sonny outwardly shows toughness and confidence but does so with a pack of thugs at his side to settle conflicts.

The dynamics of Sonny's power are further explored in a memorable quote derived from Machiavelli's famous treatise, "The Prince." When Calogero asks if it's better to be loved or feared, Sonny says: "Fear lasts longer than love...It's fear that keeps them loyal to me. But the trick is not to be hated." In an early voiceover, Calogero describes Sonny as being loved by everyone, and even Lorenzo attends the mobster's funeral at the film's end. Fear is what first inspires Calogero to lie about the murder, but love for Sonny eventually buries the negativity of that initial encounter. Although Sonny is wholeheartedly a criminal, he repeatedly shares valuable advice with Calogero that challenges viewers to ponder what makes a person good, evil, attractive, or repulsive.

One major lesson from Sonny occurs when Lorenzo discourages his son from dating an African-American girl. Sonny advises: "You're only allowed three great women in your lifetime. See this girl?...Maybe she's your first great one." While Sonny is considered lacking in morality, his resistance of social rules also makes him less prejudiced in matters of race. By contrast, Lorenzo represents a typical opinion for the setting and period. Again, the issue of virtue comes forward, questioning whether or not following the rules is the same as being a good person.

However, when Sonny suddenly accuses Calogero of an assassination attempt, Calogero catches a glimpse of the mob boss's underlying selfishness and paranoia. He gradually sees that Sonny's lifestyle is not as glamorous as it initially seemed, and the murder Sonny committed earlier results in his eventual death. In the movie's closing lines, Calogero notes: "The saddest thing in life is wasted talent. And the choices that you make will shape your life forever." As a young child, Calogero expresses disappointment that Sonny never notices him-a grim foreshadowing of the role Sonny plays in potentially pushing the teenaged boy towards a criminal existence. Ultimately, Calogero evaluates the beliefs of Lorenzo and Sonny to define his own moral code. He finally understands that a good life isn't purely about money or values but about making the most of individual abilities and being proud of personal decisions.