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At the Movies

A big Irish movie and a little Italian one


Suddenly there are movies opening that might lure people away from their chairs in front of the TV set. "Michael Collins" (Warner Brothers and Geffen Pictures), writer-director Neil Jordan's epic of the last years of Ireland's charismatic freedom fighter and statesman, is more exciting than Monday night football.

Even pacifists disturbed by scenes of Collins' IRA comrades, in their earlier incarnation, executing British intelligence officers and police spies, will be moved by the brooding climax of the film, in which the 31-year-old commander-in-chief of the new Irish Free State is gunned down by an unknown young assailant who believed the peace treaty Collins had negotiated with England the year before was a sellout.

Despite the availability, even in paperback, of Tim Pat Coogan's biography, Collins is still largely unknown to U.S. audiences. If the movie becomes a success, it will be largely on the strength of Liam Neeson's bravura performance as its hero.

Jordan begins with a bang, the British artillery blasting away at Dublin's General Post Office in 1916. The captured 1916 leaders include not only Collins but his best friend, Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), and Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), future president of the republic. The failure of the Easter Rising taught Collins that head-on attacks on the British were only suicidal gestures. Henceforth he would concentrate on hit-and-run attacks against those giving intelligence to the British authorities.

Neeson makes Collins a likable if hotheaded swashbuckler, faithful throughout to Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts), who seems first to prefer Boland and has little to do in the movie but smile winningly at both. Although Jordan does not minimize the brutality of the killings Collins ordered or dehumanize its victims, his concern to reach a mass audience makes too much of Neeson's debonair ability to escape over rooftops at the last minute -- something more appropriate for Tyrone Power in "The Mark of Zorro."

It is true that, undisguised, the real Collins pedaled his bicycle past British soldiers through dangerous Dublin streets, but the movie descends to shallow romanticism when it places him with Kitty in their hotel, playing with a rose while the murders he directed were being carried out.

Thomas Flanagan, Irish-American author of The Year of the French, reminds us that "both Collins and de Valera would have loathed the terrorism practiced by the current IRA," and Collins was realistically aware that his "irregulars" could not hold out much longer. But we need to see more of his change of heart.

The limitations of Jordan's script are signaled by the omission of the complex treaty negotiations with England that Collins signed, while recognizing that he had probably also signed his death warrant. Of course, such deliberations are notoriously hard to dramatize, but some scene of genuine inner conflict would have made it harder to dismiss the final result as an adventure movie.

The aesthetic quality of its excitement, however, is notably enhanced by the work of its cameraman, Chris Menges, who provides complex images of autumnal Dublin, landscapes and explosions. It also benefits from Alan Rickman's performance as a prim but steely de Valera. The movie shows him as deliberately giving Collins the thankless task of negotiating with the enemy; then "Dev" champions the diehard republican rejection of the treaty, plunging Ireland into civil war.

Finally, although specialists will argue over historical details of "Michael Collins," no one who values good movie-making will fault the liberties Jordan takes with the presentation of Collins' murder at its conclusion. We see a young man (Jonathan Rhys Myers) with Collins in a bar the night before, then with a bewildered de Valera and finally, with the camera looking down from a high hill, coolly expressionless in the conviction of his cause, an emblem of the fanaticism that is still alive.

"Big Night" (Samuel Goldwyn), in contrast, is a small movie, apparently about nothing more than the difficulty of two immigrant brothers making a success of the Paradise, their New York Italian restaurant. Consistently funny without resorting to pratfalls, its easy charm and affectionate humor also suggest a serious concern for integrity and brotherly affection.

The bank is about to foreclose on the Paradise, and younger brother Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also shares directing honors with Campbell Scott and wrote the screenplay with Joseph Tropiano) is understandably desperate. Business is terrible. It is the late 1950s, and customers complain that there is no side order of spaghetti and meat balls with their risotto, which has not yet found U.S. acceptance, which takes more time to prepare and is also more expensive. However, when he suggests a change in the menu to Primo (Tony Shalhoub), his more introverted older brother, who is a perfectionist master chef, the latter pauses, then contemptuously offers to make hot dogs.

The simple, elegant atmosphere of the Paradise -- and of "Big Night" -- wittily undermines the old caricature of Italian-Americans as exuberant tenors belting out "O Sole Mio." This enhances the comic irony of Secondo, whose desire to be a slick American "operator" is shown in his entrancement with a new Cadillac and going for help to Pascal (Ian Holm), who runs a loud, vulgar, successful Italian restaurant nearby. Primo says Pascal "should be in prison for the food he serves," but Secondo accepts the older man's counsel that he should invite a celebrity to an elaborate dinner party to help business. An endorsement from Louis Prima and his band, whom Pascal promises to call, will make the Paradise's reputation.

There are great visual rewards in watching the disciplined but dramatic preparation of exquisite food: We get a rich sense of Primo's otherworldly dedication, and the camera lovingly sweeps the length of the beautifully prepared long table that is set for the party. Many will be reminded of "Babette's Feast," especially when Primo announces, "To eat good food is to be close to God."

In the fine, decade-old Danish film, the puritanism of the villagers leaves them incapable of fully savoring the banquet. In "Big Night," by contrast, the guests are primed for celebration: They dance, embrace and positively swoon over the food, and the camera gracefully conveys the warmth and spontaneity of the event.

"Big Night" isn't reaching for the sustained religious suggestiveness of "Babette's Feast," however; its central comic impulses and deepest pleasures emerge in the subtle interaction of Tucci and Shalhoub as the brothers. They make us believe they have been performing together for years, building up their relationship through a hundred tiny details. As in any such relationship, it is made up of both long-standing exasperation and underlying affection.

Fortunately, "Big Night" doesn't ask us to take sides: Secondo's eagerness for success and Primo's artistic self-absorption are seen as complementary. The success of the movie is enhanced by its subtle use of Italian and Italian-American songs as background for a range of very different emotions. Except for the banquet scene, however, "Big Night" works best in small exchanges, though it fails to establish some of its secondary characters, particularly the brothers' girl friends.

Any disposition I might have had to complain about such sketchy plotting, however, were overcome by the movie's wonderful morning-after scene, a wordless sharing of a breakfast omelet. This open-ended conclusion beautifully summarizes the film's understated and very humane comedy, a style that is an incisive comment on the prevailing vulgarity of both our entertainment industry and the wider culture.

Joe Cunneen, coeditor of the interreligious quarterly Cross Currents, still likes spaghetti and meat balls.

National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 1996