The Perfect Hero
The way heroes are cast in film is done in a variety of ways. However, the common denominator between them all is they intend to set an example, or teach a lesson, in line with the morals of modern society. They seem to make all the right decisions, strike the correct tone, combat perceived evils in society, and help avoid tragedy within the story in which their characters are depicted. Our film heroes achieve something that we all constantly attempt to attain: perfection. The idea of perfection gives off the impression that making mistakes are bad which has come under fire in some academic writing such as that of Carol Dweck (2017) in Mindset which champions learning from our errors and to handle the challenges life sends our way with the right perspective. While our film heroes typically display impeccable character, and it is not my position to argue they should be of the contrary, it may be time to rethink how we see our film heroes to serve our audience.
In 1993, The Bronx Tale, made its debut on the big screen, and brought back to life a typical Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, New York. The protagonist, Calogero, was your quintessential Italian-American growing up in New York during the 1950’s who came from a working class family. His father, Lorenzo, drove a local bus to support him and his mom, Rosina, who is a housewife. As a young man, Calorgero’s dad is his idol. In various scenes, Calogero is shown riding the bus with Lorenzo as he experiences what a typical day of work is like for his dad; they enjoy America’s favorite pastime together as fans of the legendary New York Yankees; and Calogero faithfully follows what his father teaches him. This seemingly perfect relationship gets interrupted, and altered, when Calogero witnesses a murder in front of his apartment building. Immediately following the shooting, police ask Calogero to identify the assailant in a lineup on the corner in front of the local mob boss’s, Sonny, favorite restaurant and base of operations, Calogero denies recognizing anyone in the lineup as the killer. Impressed by a young Calogero’s desire to not “rat” to the cops, Sonny befriends Calogero and becomes like a second father to him. Against his father’s wishes, a young Calogero spends time with Sonny as he begins to learn lessons about life and the streets Sonny is in control of while their relationship blossoms.
As Calogero becomes a teenager, the talks about the New York Yankees and going to work with Lorenzo become more of a memory. Calogero finds himself spending more time at Sonny’s bar but is never involved in any illegal activity which Sonny heavily discouraged and made certain never happened. Calogero comes dangerously close to ruining his life because of his childhood friends in the neighborhood who see Sonny as an example to follow, but only for his power as a mafia boss and not for his wisdom. Calogero’s friend Slick, played by Joseph D’Onofrio, is intrigued by Sonny’s power and the most ambitious of the group who tries to emulate Sonny and involve Calogero in his plans. Those plans take a deadly turn one evening during a failed attempt to get revenge on some African-Americans in a neighboring community who retaliated against Slick and his crew for their acts of racism. Unknowingly, Sonny prevents Calogero from accompanying Slick to seek revenge when Sonny spots their car and pulls Calogero from it. Slick and his crew tragically die as their car explodes when the Molotov cocktails meant for their rivals ignite and cause the car to burst into flames. Calogero later learns of the fate of his friends and goes looking for Sonny to thank him for saving his life. Calogero returns to Sonny’s restaurant and spots him in the crowd at the bar. They are seen calling out to each other as Calogero makes his way across the crowded bar towards Sonny. However, before Calogero can reach Sonny, he witnesses another murder as the film ends tragically when Sonny is shot and killed by the son of the man Sonny had killed years before in front of Calogero and his apartment building.
The tragic death of Sonny is the result of the life Sonny led and also the exact ending Lorenzo was trying to help Calogero avoid. Lorenzo was loving, honest, trustworthy, and a dedicated father; all characteristics that would make him the perfect father and perhaps the hero of the film. But is he really the hero? Lorenzo possesses all common characteristics we want our heroes to have. However, I believe that limits not only what a hero can be, but also what a hero can teach us. A hero can teach us to strive for perfection and not that perfection is attainable. If perfection were attainable, it would mean the end of humans evolving and reaching new heights. It would mean evil would be completely eradicated from society, and the utopia in which humans wish to live would finally exist. Unfortunately, thousands of years of history tells us that these are not realistic goals which is why our heroes should also prepare us for the less than perfect sides of life.
While those less than perfect sides of life were addressed by Lorenzo during the film as a perfect hero would, I believe it denies us the chance to look at things from another perspective that can enrich our life knowledge and appreciate how complicated life can sometimes be. Deciding what is right and wrong is not always an easy task. Nor is it true that we should expect that perceived bad individuals are not capable of doing good things with sincerity. Calogero looked up to Sonny as a role model as a child and well into his adult life, as we saw a much wiser Calogero at the end of the film. Can we look up to a mafia boss as a role model? Well, Calogero did, and so did I.
Charlie Panarella was born and raised in Staten Island, New York. He now lives and works in Florence, Italy as an administrator and adjunct Italian professor for Florida State University. All of his grandparents came from the Campania region of Italy, and he is a dual Italian and American citizen. Charlie studied abroad during the 2010-2011 academic year in Florence and graduated with his master’s in Italian language and culture from Middlebury College. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology with an emphasis on language development from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas which he expects to complete by the end of 2021.