Some films should come with a warning: don’t watch with an empty stomach. Big Night (1996) is one of those films.
Set on the Jersey Shore in the 1950s, Big Night is about two brothers – Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), post-war Italian immigrants – and the restaurant, Paradise, which they run together. Primo is a perfectionist chef, zealously devoted to the creation of authentic Italian food. Secondo, the second son, has adapted better to the compromises of their new American life. He manages the business and charms customers in the dining room.
Primo and Secondo speak the same language, although they don’t always hear what the other is saying. Paradise is in deep financial trouble, but Secondo can’t share this information with Primo, who stays in the kitchen, his head in his pots oblivious to reality. Primo’s artistry has pushed them towards bankruptcy.
Customers are few, and those that come are confused by what they’re eating. An early scene, in which a woman orders Primo’s sophisticated seafood risotto – prepared with stock that contains the essence of scallops and shrimp but featuring no visible seafood – is met with disbelief. The woman wants a side order of spaghetti with meatballs. Primo calls her a philistine; Secondo smooths things out. We understand so much about their dynamic here, and also how each defines the restaurant’s success.
In contrast, at Pascal’s, the restaurant across the road, business is booming. But Pascal (Ian Holm), also a migrant, speaks another language. He’s fluent in capitalism, having taken naturally to the language of the American dream. At Pascal’s crowded, boisterous restaurant, American interpretations of Italian food rule – there’s plenty of spaghetti and meatballs here. Pascal is a businessman and showman. He talks big and loud, exemplified in the image of a flambéed dish arriving at a table (not a typical Italian cooking technique).
Primo wants the food to do the talking. For him, food exists on another plane; his feeling for it, his preparation of it, elevated to a near sacred art. As he tells Ann (Alison Janney), the florist he’s nervously attracted to, “To eat good food is to be close to God.” Pascal, better equipped to give American diners what they want explains that customers don’t want to look at a plate and have to figure out what it is. For Primo, Pascal’s success is a direct consequence of his mediocrity.
The missing ingredient here, of course, is love. Pascal’s food isn’t prepared with heart, but with both eyes firmly on the money. But at Paradise, every plate comes with a generous portion of it – some customers might be confused and screaming for meatballs, but others can taste it, finding themselves seduced, in ecstasy, speechless and breathless, and even moved to tears by Primo’s creations.
At the big night that Secondo hopes will keep their American dream alive – Pascal has organised for his so-called good friend, bandleader Louis Prima, to come eat at Paradise in the hope that his patronage will turn things around – course after delicious course is offered to the night’s guests. But it’s not just antipasti, soup, risotto, fish, suckling pig, and the spectacular timpano, that Primo is offering them – it’s a piece of his heart, transferred from kitchen to plate to fork to mouth. You only have to see how happy he looks to hear from Secondo and Cristiano (Marc Anthony), the waiter, that his food is loved in return to know how essential this exchange is to him.
Big Night is a film about food, but it’s mostly a film about family and love. Tucci, who co-directed with high school friend Campbell Scott (who has a role as a Cadillac salesman), co-wrote the script with his cousin Joseph Tropiano. From its origins, like the dishes assembled at Paradise, Big Night is a collaborative family affair. The film’s beautifully restrained final sequence explains this love most potently. Louis Prima never shows and Pascal’s true, selfish motivations are revealed. The brothers fight on the beach – Primo wants them to return to Italy to work in their uncle’s new restaurant in Rome; Secondo wants to stay, tired of taking care of everything, including his older brother.
After the guests have stumbled, sated, out of Paradise, and as dawn breaks, Secondo enters the kitchen and makes an omelette. Cristiano, passed out from exhaustion on the bench top, sits up. The camera sits still and there’s no dialogue. We watch as Secondo makes the omelette, then divides it, leaving a third portion in the pan. As they start eating, Primo returns. Secondo gets another plate, puts the remaining omelette on it, and Primo sits down. Side by side, the brothers eat in silence, each with an arm across the other’s shoulders, once again, speaking the same language. The humble, uncomplicated omelette is the antithesis of Primo’s seafood risotto or grand timpano. But it expresses the same care and love – a silent apology that cements what binds these brothers to each other.
So put on some Louis Prima, lay out some antipasti, pop the cork on a bottle of Prosecco, and get into the kitchen to stir up this delicious seafood risotto or bake a grape and rosemary focaccia for someone you love.
Watch ‘Big Night’ at SBS On Demand
Find the recipes at SBS Food