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MOVIE REVIEW : Charming Walk Around the ‘Bronx’ : Robert De Niro’s directorial showcase captures the neighborhood mood so clearly you can almost smell the pepperoni. But the film is more about the place than the tale.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Great actors are time bandits, hoarders of pieces of observed reality that can be parceled out to create a performance. And the best thing about Robert De Niro’s work behind the camera in “A Bronx Tale” (selected theaters) is that he has brought this actor’s sensibility, this delight in small and casual moments, to his first film as a director.

Set (where else but) in the Bronx, hardly virgin territory for the movies, “Tale” brings more tangy authenticity to its evocation of the tribal world of New York’s ethnic neighborhoods than almost any film you can name. Its re-creation of the primarily Italian Belmont section, home of hoodlums and honest citizens both, is so sweetly and vividly remembered you can almost smell the pepperoni.

The key player (aside from De Niro) in this recapturing of a particular place and time is Chazz Palminteri, a journeyman stage and TV actor who, apparently out of desperation, decided to write a monologue rooted in his childhood in the Bronx. The monologue became a celebrated one-man show that Palminteri turned into a script he refused to part with unless he ended up with a key role himself.

Appealing though it is in its celebration of ambience and mood, however, “A Bronx Tale” (rated R for strong language and several scenes of violence) doesn’t have the same tact when it comes to plotting. A film that would have been better off without a melodramatic story line, “Tale” is burdened by no fewer than two, neither one particularly convincing and both feeling as if they were forcefully grafted onto an otherwise charming flowering plant.

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While it stars De Niro and Palminteri, “Tale” revolves around the unsentimental education of a third party, Calogero (C for short) Anello, who goes from being a wide-eyed 9-year-old (Francis Capra) when the film opens in 1960 to an only nominally more sophisticated 17-year-old (Lillo Brancato) in the tumultuous year of 1968.

C’s father, Lorenzo (De Niro, selflessly taking a not very interesting part), is a hard-working bus driver who frets that “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” His son, however, can’t help but be attracted to the only glamour in the neighborhood, the crime family wise guys who hang out in Chez Bippy, drinking coffee and stronger stuff and gambling the hours away.

Chez Bippy is the kind of place where the regulars have names as colorful as the bar itself. Frankie Coffeecake, so called for his less-than-ideal complexion; JoJo the Whale, whose shadow once killed a dog; and Eddie Mush, the infallible jinx whose presence can mess up any good thing, are all habitues, as are Jimmy Whispers, Danny K.O., Louie Dumps and of course Tony Toupee.

Even if you feel you never want to see another colorful Italian as long as you live, it will be difficult to resist the film’s relaxed, unforced way with these locals, who turn a basement craps game into a grimy comic gem. Many of them are played (as is C at both 9 and 17) by non-professionals with whom De Niro the director has a quite effective touch.

No. 1 man and no less than a god in the neighborhood is Sonny, the kind of guy who already knows the answer when he asks, “Anybody got a problem with that?” Palminteri, who after all wrote the role, knows enough to underplay its excesses, and ends up with a vital, seemingly effortless performance that dominates the film from beginning to end.

Naturally C can’t resist Sonny after a violent incident brings him to the great man’s notice, but though the ads insist “A Devoted Father Battles the Local Crime Boss for the Life of His Son,” that is a totally bogus conflict. For one thing, father Lorenzo mostly ignores his son’s infatuation, and for another, Sonny is a more complex character than your ordinary capo. He’s read Machiavelli (yes, he read it in prison, but at least he was reading) and he strongly believes young C should go to college and leave the streets behind.

Equally arbitrary is the interracial romance that the 17-year-old C begins to contemplate when he sees African-American Jane (Taral Hicks) talking to friends on his father’s bus. Awkward in its sincerity, this forbidden love also strikes a contrived note, as if it were thought up to order when someone felt the situation demand more conflict.

All in all, “A Bronx Tale” is best when it just lets its guys hang out in the neighborhood (really Astoria, Queens, beautifully transformed by production designer Wynn Thomas) listening to the soundtrack’s exceptional collection of period music. De Niro’s direction is always unassuming in the best sense, and whenever his and Palminteri’s film forgets about the supposed demands of plot it remembers the best parts of itself.

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‘A Bronx Tale’

Robert De Niro: Lorenzo

Chazz Palminteri: Sonny

Lillo Brancato: Calogero (Age 17)

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Francis Capra: Calogero (Age 9)

Taral Hicks: Jane

Released by Savoy. Director Robert De Niro. Producers Jane Rosenthal, Jon Kilik, Robert De Niro. Executive producer Peter Gatien. Screenplay by Chazz Palminteri. Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos. Editor David Ray, R.Q. Lovett. Costumes Rita Ryack. Music Supervisor Jeffrey Kimball. Production design Wynn Thomas. Art director Chris Shriver. Set decorator Debra Schutt. Running time: 2 hours.

MPAA-rated R (strong language and several scenes of violence).

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