Born in Baltimore in the mid-eighties and growing up as a kid of the nineties there were tons of coming of age films that contributed to my sense of wonder and taught me lessons about life.
A film that exemplified the lesson of growing up in a tough neighborhood and understanding the nuance and difference between the respect you can garner through love or through fear, with the accompanying authority that comes with it, was The Bronx Tale.
Though it’s set in a neighborhood in another city, it portrays the lengths a father goes to protect his child from the harsh reality of their environment and the lessons he imparts of becoming a respected man of your community.
In the film Calogero Anello, a pre-teen kid who adopts the nickname C later in the film, watches as a local neighborhood gangster, Sonny, commands the authority and respect of their community.
C is intrigued by Sonny’s mobster persona and as a little boy C aspires to be in his position as a well respected person in the community. It’s exemplified in the beginning of the film when he’s hanging out with his friends and mimicking his favorite neighborhood mobster’s hand gestures.
Though C loves his father Lorenzo Anello, a bus driver, played by Robert De Niro who has an ongoing route through his neighborhood, C understands that both his father and Sonny command respect as men in their own way.
The fine line between respect through fear and respect through love is distinguished in a scene where after witnessing a murder by Sonny, and not telling the police, Sonny starts bringing C under his wing and paying him for serving the gangsters in the local backroom gambling spot. His father finds out and takes his child back to the spot to give Sonny back his “dirty” money.
When leaving the gambling spot Lorenzo pulls his son along, literally pulling him from a life of crime that he sees his son slowly being brought into.
During this scene he drags his son along but C resist and wonders why his father would give back his hard earned money to Sonny, who is quickly becoming a second father figure.
C doesn’t understand why but in pulling away from his father, his father literally slaps some sense into him and C laments, “Sonny was right, the working man is a, … he’s a sucker.” Lorenzo in an attempt to save his son and explain to him that though both men are respected that Sonny’s respect comes from fear he rebuts, “He’s wrong, it don’t take much strength to pull the trigger but try to get up every morning day after day and work for a living, let’s see him try that, then we’ll see who’s the real tough guy, the working man is the tough guy, your father’s the tough guy.” C continues, “Everybody loves him just like everybody loves you on the bus, it’s the same thing.”Lorenzo responds,“ No, it’s not the same, people don’t love him they fear him, there’s a difference.”
In this moment C doesn’t understand but is told when he gets older that he will.
Later in the film, Sonny is shot and killed by the son of the guy he murdered earlier. Even though he was respected by his fellow gangsters, all the folks at his funeral act as if it isn’t a day of mourning but one of just going through the motions and carrying on like it was any other day. The kind of respect that Sonny got was out of fear and was ephemeral, it didn’t last beyond the grave.
Sonny wasn’t a respected loved one to be mourned over but a means to an end. The kind of respect that Sonny garnered was through fear not love so it was temporary right up until he was killed. The idea of loyalty and respect Lorenzo was trying to impart to his son was one garnered by love and service. Lorenzo didn’t have to look over his shoulder, he wanted his son to grow up to be a man who was loved and respected without fear.