“Big Night” at Connelly Cinema

Erin Driscoll

Only a philistine would order risotto with a side of spaghetti. At least, that is the opinion of Primo, master chef at the Italian restaurant he owns with his younger brother, Secondo. Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is a purist who cares more for the quality of the food than making money, while Secondo (Stanley Tucci) is willing to sacrifice culinary standards if it means saving their restaurant from going under.

“Big Night” is one of the great food movies whose atmosphere seduces the senses, like “Babette’s Feast” and “Like Water for Chocolate.” It is the cinematic equivalent of enjoying a mouth-watering, sumptuous meal in a small, inexpensive, unheralded restaurant — a low-budget film with a menu of quality acting and images that simmer.

A period piece set at the Jersey Shore in the 1950s, “Big Night’s” two brothers, recent immigrants from Italy, are faced with a rival restaurateur, Pascal. He is a flashy and crude man whose eatery is enormously successful despite the mediocre fare and, as Primo claims, “raping of cuisine.” However, Secondo goes to him for advice in hopes of saving their livelihood. Pascal suggests inviting famous jazz musician Louis Prima for a feast to bring attention to their restaurant, and the brothers begin preparing for their big night.

Tension and compassion are clearly a frustrating mix between the two brothers. Primo broods with disappointment as he refuses to give in to commercialism and compromise his culinary artistry. Secondo, meanwhile, craves the money and stature that would provide him with next year’s Cadillac, but still respects and admires his brother’s point of view.

The whole movie is a family affair, both on-and-off screen. Actor-director Tucci, who plays Secondo, wrote the script with his cousin Joseph Tropiano, drawing on their family roots in Italy. Tucci also co-directed the film with childhood pal Campbell Scott, who plays a small role in the film. Shalhoub (of television’s “Monk”), another friend, joins Tucci as Primo, in an unforgettable acting duet that is as richly authentic as the food.

The supporting cast is also familiar. Minnie Driver plays Secondo’s American girlfriend, who is eagerly awaiting his proposal of marriage, while “The West Wing’s” Allison Janney plays Ann, a florist with whom Primo is smitten. Latino pop singer Marc Anthony is the restaurant’s quiet assistant, and the mistress of both Secondo and Pascal is the alluring Isabella Rossellini.

“Big Night” was the recipient of several awards when it was released in 1996. Three of these were screenwriting awards from the Sundance Film Festival, the Independent Spirit Awards and the Boston Society of Film Critics. Cameron Crowe and Stanley Tucci also won the Best New Director award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

The film will be screened four times in the Connelly Center Cinema: Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 3:30 and 7 p.m., and Monday at 7 p.m. Admission is $3 for students with ID and $4 for all others.

The Monday evening show will offer an introduction about the film, as well as a discussion afterward, “Blood is Thicker Than Water … and Marinara Sauce,” with guest speaker Steve McWilliams.

For further information, please call the Communication Department at x9-4750 or consult the Cultural Film Series website online at www.culturalfilms.villanova.edu.