A quarter of a century before Stanley Tucci made the food docuseries Searching for Italy, he explored the connection between Italians, Americans and their cuisine in Big Night, his directorial debut. Co-directed with Campbell Scott, it takes place in the early 1950s, and revolves around a pair of immigrant brothers, Primo, played by Tony Shalhoub, and Secondo, played by Tucci himself, who run a restaurant called “Paradise” on the Jersey Shore. Primo and Secondo differ in their philosophies of food but find themselves drawn together when Pascal, a local restauranteur, played by Ian Holm, arranges for Louis Prima to visit “Paradise.”
On the one hand, Primo understands that the business of crafting a restaurant is partly the business of crafting an atmosphere. For that reason, he gravitates towards Pascal, who has realised that the best way to make money is to serve mediocre and unadventurous food, while pairing it with an elaborate and exotic mise-en-scene. One of Pascal’s success stories involves sending a sample of his food to Humphrey Bogart, who responded with a signed photograph two days later, and then visited his restaurant two weeks after that. For Pascal, that was like remaking Casablanca in the image of his restaurant, or absorbing Bogart’s star power into his restaurant, cementing its cinematic sense of mise-en-scene as its main asset.
In part, then, Big Night is a testament to a certain kind of mise-en-scene that once typified suburban Italian restaurants – the type of restaurants that celebrated their own mise-en-scene with framed photographs of all the local and international bigshots who had dined there. Tucci and Scott beautifully evoke the peculiar cosiness of Italian restaurants, as well as the homeliness of restaurants that are often almost empty – or at least never completely full. My mother grew up in Griffith, a big Italian-Australian town, I grew up in Drummoyne, a big Italian-Australian suburb, and my partner grew up in an Italian-American community in New Jersey, so the textures, details and décor of these restaurants felt wonderfully familiar to me.
At the same time, Primo, Secondo’s brother, is more interested in food than in mise-en-scene. He prides himself on authenticity above all else, specialising in dishes that are very on trend with the new school of Italian cooking that became popular in the mid-90s, when the film was released. We hear explanations of focaccia, crostini and goats cheese, as Primo tries to shift the zeitgeist from Italian-American “classics” to more authentically regional cuisine. It’s not hard to see the origin of Monk in Primo’s obsession with detail here, which starts in the very first scene, when he expresses his disdain for customers who want a meal with two starches.
In other words, Primo eschews spectacle on principle, whereas Secondo understands that a good restaurant has to make some concessions to popular taste and mise-en-scene. Secondo also gets that authenticity can be a liability – Primo’s signature risotto is the most authentic dish, to be sure, but it’s also the most expensive, the least popular, and takes the longest to prepare. In that same opening scene, a couple has to wait on both their orders for an inordinate length of time so that the dishes can all come out at the same moment as this risotto.
Yet while Primo is resistant to spectacle, he’s also in love with one of the main purveyors of spectacle (residual as it is) to their restaurant – Ann, a florist played by Alison Janney, who regularly sells flowers to the brothers so that they can brighten up the place. Between Primo and Secondo, then, the film searches for the right balance between authenticity and spectacle when it comes to crafting an Italian-American identity. Obviously, the brothers have to remain true to their Italian roots, but to become truly Italian-American they have to perform that heritage to a certain extent, and turn it into an assert that can stabilise them in the new world.
Finding this balance between authenticity and assimilation was a common theme in films about the Italian-American community by this point in time, but Big Night is unique in dissociating it from even the most residual Mafia presence. In fact, Tucci and Scott break the symbiosis between Italian-American food culture and crime culture, tacitly signalling that the great gangster cycles of New Hollywood have finally come to a close. This is even more notable in that restaurants, and restaurant foreclosure, were a common trope of Mafia texts, from The Godfather to Goodfellas and on to The Sopranos. Time and again, we saw Mafiosi take over a restaurant, ostensibly to save it, but really just to acquire a new hangout or base.
During the first act, Big Night seems to be heading in this direction, since Primo and Secondo’ differences aren’t just philosophical – they’ve had dire consequences for their business. In one of the early scenes, they meet with a bank manager, who tells them that he will have to foreclose if they don’t pay back their loan within the month. Even this manager seems to assume the Mafia as a foregone conclusion, a trope that’s every bit as foreclosed as their property: “Do you have anyone…back home…that you can rely on?” When the Mafia doesn’t appear, it creates an expanded palette and a more emergent vision of Italian-American life.
Ironically, this expanded palette takes place by way of a hermetic focus and modest scope, but this is just Tucci and Scott’s way of keeping the overwhelming legacy of gangster films at bay. For long stretches, Big Night seems pointedly poised against the ensemble sweep of Coppola or Scorsese, as the directors tell their story through quiet, intimate moments that are usually tightly framed against quasi-theatrical spaces that feel like so many soundstages.
More generally, Tucci and Scott adopt an indie formalism that offsets the naturalism of Scorsese and Coppola. The Mafia is so integral to a certain kind of Italian-American realism that the directors have to produce a kind of off-realism to envisage a period piece without it. In effect, the absence of the Mafia slightly distorts the reality field of the film, not unlike Matteo Garrone’s Dogman, over twenty years later, which also tries to imagine the Italian public sphere without any residual Mafia presence. This formal quality is especially clear in the early dialogue, which often plays as slightly stilted and ceremonial, as it might in an empty restaurant, or a restaurant that hasn’t quite nailed the right amount and quality of ambience.
This stylised quality peaks in the one scene where the two directors come together in the film. Tucci, as Secondo, wanders into a car dealership, where he’s met by Scott, in the guise of Bob, a car salesman. As the two men admire a Cadillac, a synecdoche for the formal brilliance of their own film, the film itself reaches a new pitch of formalism, splintering into self-contained statements that feel closer to Hal Hartley than to Scorsese and Coppola’s world. At this moment, Big Night seems to be searching for an Italian-American identity it can only envisage negatively – by the conspicuous and formalist absence of naturalised Mafia tropes.
During the second act of the film, Tucci and Scott experiment with what it might take to fill in this negative mise-en-scene with an ingredient other than the Mafia. At first this ingredient takes the form of Louis Prima, who, Pascal promises, is going to make an appearance at Paradise and so save it from foreclosure. No Italian-American singer was bigger in the early 50s, so Primo and Secondo set about preparing for him as vivaciously as they can, although Primo refrains from telling Secondo that they only secured his booking through Pascal, since Secondo is sceptical of the more business-savvy approach to cuisine that Pascal represents.
Gradually, Tucci and Scott start to fill their sparse mise-en-scenes with music and food – or with the musicality of food. Like music, cooking here is partly a matter of structure, and partly a matter of improvised madness. The two come together with the timpano, the centrepiece of the dinner – a conflation of every possible Italian meal in which Secondo combines every delectable ingredient in his kitchen into a timpani mould. This is apparently a common dish in certain regions of Italy, but only passed into the broader American lexicon with this film.
As Prima’s visit grows nearer, this fusion of music and food grows more potent, turning the dinner into a moment of Italian-American apotheosis – the night when Primo and Secondo plan to go from Italians to Italian-Americans, from immigrants to entrepreneurs. They start to play Prima’s signature song, “Buona Sera,” over and over again, until it makes its way into the diegetic soundtrack, collapsing Primo and Prima into a vision of becoming-Italian-American. By the time the night arrives, and locals line up outside to bask in Prima’s presence, this dinner has become indescribably moving, charged with a deep yearning to belong to a new culture.
As a result, Primo and Secondo achieve harmony during this dinner, resolving their drives towards authenticity and spectacle, while the film follows suit, congealing its various disparate tendencies into a rich and reparative ambience. Secondo’s strict adherence to Italian cooking gives way to a more fluid Italian-American expanse, and the camera registers that shifts too, floating in long sequences shots from person to person, drunk on their tactile flow.
In effect, we’re watching a community become Italian-American in a single night – and discover a new Italian-American sociability in the process. Music and food converge on the guests, and prompt a new kind of embodied closeness, producing a series of dances in which they change partners over and over. The most vivid occurs to “Mambo Italiano,” a song that does the same thing as the film – absorbs flashpoints of Italian-American cuisine into an intoxicating flow that immediately conjures up a fully embodied community. By the time the guests sit down to dinner, they’re galvanised by a synergy and sociability that passes through them like an electrical charge, accompanied by a staticky, percussive, timpani-heavy score.
By this stage, Prima hasn’t arrived, but it doesn’t really matter, since the party has started to overtake him and displace him – or relegate him back to a celebrity, a fantasy, an aspirational horizon of what Italian-American identity can achieve. That space between Prima’s physical presence and his musical ambience condenses to the start of the meal, and finally to the preparation of the timpano, which Secondo finally places above Prima, declaring that he has reached the ideal moment to serve it, regardless of whether their guest of honour has arrived.
In reality, though, it’s more like Secondo absorbs Prima into the timpano – or Primo absorbs Prima into the very cusp between Primi and Secondi Piatti, which is when the dish makes its entrance. To check that the timing is right, Secondo taps the timpano like it’s a timpani, as an actual timpani shivers on the score, putting his ear right to the pastry to “hear” if it’s done. At this precise second, the film collapses Prima back into the musical-culinary sociability of the film, which gives way to pure montage as we move through each course in the sublime menu.
Interestingly, this isn’t exactly a catalogue of food so much as a catalogue of the spaces between food, people and other people – the spaces opened up by food. Rather than focusing too much on each dish, Tucci and Scott linger on the point of contact between food and table, the convergence of authenticity and spectacle as each dish is delivered from (and then returned to) the kitchen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that so perfectly captured the intoxicating sociability of eating, the way that a shared dinner can bring you closer to other people’s bodies, and make you high on that connection, that sense of a shared common life.
While this sociability has its origin in music and food, it starts to transcend both music and food by the time we reach the Dolci. Up until this point, music and food have been useful ways to fill in and sensualise the connective tissue between characters, the negative space left by the evacuation of Mafia tropes. By this stage, that process has been achieved so completely that the guests can turn their attention on this shared space as an erotic pleasure in and of itself. Accordingly, Tucci and Scott refrain from showing the Dolci coming out, and instead depict the guests lying languorously around the restaurant in a state of total satiation. From there, they embark on a series of “games” that allow them to relish this connective space between them – lighting paper candles so that small pieces of ash fly up in the air; holding on to a single piece of string and sliding a wedding ring along it from person to person.
Now that the music and food have died away, we’re down to the raw materials of the restaurant – paper and string – as the stilted and ceremonial spaces of the first act give way to a sublime synergy and sociability. The only character who doesn’t quite belong is Pascal’s wife Gabriella, played by Isabella Rossellini, who’s still quite staid compared to the other characters. At times she only seems to be present to anchor the mise-en-scene, or as a reminder of Roberto Rossellini, and the synergy between Italian and Italian-American film identities. She speaks almost entirely in film tropes and tableaux, culminating in a story about heading west to find a movie cowboy, while she’s flooded with artificial pink and purple light.
As it turns out, this betokens a melancholy shift that ushers in the abbreviated third act of the film. Just as the party is reaching its languorous completion, Pascal accidentally reveals that Prima was never coming, and that he lied to Primo and Secondo – partly so he could force them into bankruptcy and hire them for his own restaurant, and partly as revenge for Primo sleeping with Gabriella, the only figure who didn’t acclimatise to his mise-en-scene. Learning that Prima was never coming is even more devastating in that it didn’t seem to matter that he didn’t come. The mere possibility of Prima arriving at any moment was the fantasy that sustained this sublime Italian-American ambience – a fantasy that ruptures as soon as Primo and Secondo learn that Pascal was only trying to appropriate and commodify them all along.
This produces a very sharp break in the film’s spatial scheme – a schism in the mise-en-scene, as we cut to the night beach, where Primo’s girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver) has plunged herself into the waves as the brothers fight on the desolate shore. All the fluid ambience of the second act is deflected into the dark water, and all the miles it travels to their homeland – a stark reminder that the brothers are still perched at the very edge of a foreign continent.
Yet the ending isn’t all bleak, as Tucci and Scott now start to recreate a more provisional Italian-American public sphere. Gradually, the dinner guests regather to watch the conflict unfold from a distance, while the brothers’ oppositional language also resolves into a series of more ambivalent challenges: “Tell me, what exactly are you?” We end with the most iconic scene of the film – a long silent shot in which Primo returns to the restaurant, cooks a frittata for himself and his busboy, and then cooks a frittata for Secondo when he enters the room. The film ends with the two brothers patting each other gently on the back as they eat the meal.
In this final moment, Tucci and Scott fall back upon the language of Italian neorealism to imagine the Italian-American future. Like post-war Italian identity, post-immigration Italian identity is emergent, a shared space, an experiment with creating a new kind of connective tissue – and Big Night ends, simply and profoundly, by affirming that connective tissue. It’s not bleak, but there’s no real catharsis, and yet this absence of catharsis is also what signals Tucci and Scott’s departure from the histrionic conclusions of Coppola and Scorsese. In their hands, this emergent Italian-American identity is even more volatile than the most violent gangster film – and perhaps even more intolerable to the moviegoing public too, since Bob Giraldi’s 2000 film Dinner Rush would take many of Big Night’ tropes and embed them back in a Mafia narrative. Yet just makes Tucci and Scott’s film more singular and more emergent in a present Hollywood that still hasn’t quite caught up to its profoundly generous ambience.