The year is not even two weeks old but it already has one electrifyingly brilliant film to its credit.
“Jeet?" a character asks in "Federal Hill." It's his way of asking, "Did you eat?" If he wanted to say, "Did you ever eat?" it would be "Jever eat?" The movie has a good ear for the way the characters talk, dress, move and live; it's another Italian-American slice-of-life, well acted and directed. When Martin Scorsese made "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" in 1967, did he know he was creating a genre and providing work for three decades of actors? The movie takes place in Providence, R.I., where local Italian-American kids like Nicky and Ralphie (Anthony De Sando and Nicholas Turturro) have little in common with the sleek, upper-crust kids who attend Brown University. There are little class-conscious signs of that all through the film; for example, a well-written restaurant scene implies that if you are going to be fluent in Italian, it is better to have learned it in school than from your grandparents.
Nicky is a hustling kid around town who works in his father's car lot, likes to borrow Cadillac ragtops for the evening and deals a little cocaine to make ends meet. Ralphie is his best friend, "like a brother to me." Ralph in fact may secretly think of himself as more than a brother to Nicky; there are many clues that he has homosexual feelings, which he masks with tough talk and with a nasty episode of gay-bashing. (Jever notice how the most homophobic member of any crowd is always the one who is most adamant about hanging out with the guys?) Ralphie works construction, sort of. His father, who prides himself on being a great bricklayer, is a manic-depressive who sometimes sinks into deep glooms ("You know how your father gets," a foreman tells the son). Ralphie lavishes great care and love on the old man, but no less care and love on Nicky, whom he looks after protectively. When Nicky meets Wendy, a coed from Brown (Libby Langdon), Ralphie is deeply jealous.
He warns his buddy that she's just a rich college girl looking for a little local action and a source of cocaine, but maybe he's wrong. Wendy is one of those modern women who takes as much as she gives, and far from being the mindless object of Nicky's lust, she's sexually demanding, once surprising him by initiating sex in the stacks of the school library.
Nicky loves this girl. When he learns she's going to Italy for the summer on a field trip, he fantasizes about going along, as cook and interpreter. (He is, in fact, an excellent cook, whose seduction techniques begin with a plate of perfect linguini.) While Nicky's romance progresses, Ralphie gets into deep trouble. He's a housebreaker with kinky tastes who, in a half-witted attempt to help a friend, has broken into the houses of three "made" men in the Mafia.
This is not a wise thing to do. He moves in circles a lot tougher than he is; visiting a fence, he is almost shot coming through the door, inspiring the classic line, "Jeez, I almost put one in you, buddy! Come on in!" Ralphie finds himself in deep trouble with Sal (Frank Vincent), the local boss, and that leads to an ironic scene in which Sal's son finds himself uncomfortable with the opportunity to "earn his bones." "Federal Hill" covers familiar ground, but with feeling and style. Writer-director Michael Corrente is not just treading in Scorsese's footsteps but testing new ground, especially in the subplots involving Ralph's father and the unexamined closeness between Ralph and Nick. The series of ironic developments at the end of the movie feels a little like movie plotting, yes, but Corrente has set them up well enough to get away with them. Y'know?
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