Big Night is a small, stylish ensemble film with a great soundtrack of lively jazz standards and a clear devotion to Italian food culture. More than just a ‘foodie’ film, though, it has much to say about true hospitality and even—if you look for it—the Church’s mission in a culture that does not always understand or value it.
Released in 1996, Big Night is the bittersweet story of two Italian brothers as they struggle to save their failing restaurant on the New Jersey seashore in the 1950s. As their debts pile up and the bank manager threatens to pull the plug on their dream, Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a passionate and gifted chef, rubs up against his more pragmatic and suave younger brother, Secondo (a young Stanley Tucci, who co-wrote and co-directed the film). In a last-ditch attempt to raise their profile and rescue their business, and encouraged by rival Italian businessman Pascal (Ian Holm, in an alternately hilarious and menacing performance), the brothers invest their remaining resources, both financial and emotional, in an elaborate dinner for the famous jazz musician Louis Prima and his band.
The film deftly explores the clash of cultures that is typical of the immigrant experience. The tension between the values of the ‘old world’ (tradition, community, family and relationship) and those of the new (speed, efficiency, money, individualism and fashion) is perhaps most evident in the way the characters use and speak about time. The slow, patient approach to life, food and relationship the brothers have brought with them from Italy increasingly comes into conflict with the unrelenting speed of American society.
Early in the film, for example, Secondo meets with their bank manager to plead for more time in repaying their debts. His attempts to engage the bank manager in conversation are met with a brisk, patronising dismissal. Clearly embarrassed by Secondo’s attempt to turn their encounter into something more than an impersonal business transaction, the banker winds up the interview abruptly, stating bluntly that the brothers have simply run out of time.
Primo, by contrast, is a perfectionist and true artist, devoting time and care to preparing the food he offers his guests. Late in the evening, he takes his time chatting with their only regular customer, a struggling painter, over espresso and biscotti, graciously accepting the painting that is apologetically offered in lieu of cash. ‘Please, what would I do with money?’ he says.
Similarly, he gives the preparation of his signature dish—a seafood risotto—all the time it needs, testing the patience not only of his ‘philistine’ American customers but also of his younger brother, who feels torn between his own ambition and Primo’s idealism and sense of vocation. When challenged by his brother, Primo holds firm to his belief that ‘If you give people time, they learn.’ But Secondo wants to be taken seriously and to succeed in a culture that values quantity and immediate gratification more highly than quality and care. ‘I don’t have time for them to learn,’ he complains.
There is much that is relevant to the Church in Big Night. Like Primo and Secondo, we might grapple with the question of whether we should compromise our values and our tradition in order to meet the expectations of a world that is, in some ways, alien to us. Like the brothers, we want to bring people through our doors, but in the pursuit of popularity, and in the process of making ourselves attractive to those we seek to bless, do we risk sacrificing what is really important, what is truly nourishing?
This dilemma lies at the heart of Primo’s discomfort with Secondo’s scheme to make the restaurant fashionable by association with celebrity. Primo instinctively recognises that fame is no guarantee of substance. When his little brother asks him what’s bothering him, he says, ‘People should come just for the food.’ Secondo tries to bring him around: ‘I know. Primo, I need your help here, okay? Louis Prima is coming! He’s not just some guy; he’s famous!’ But Primo isn't convinced. ‘Famous? Is he good? ... People should come just for the food ... They should come just for the food!’
The spiritual implications of this tension are beautifully explored in Big Night, and a number of biblical images and themes run through the film. Unlike Pascal, who names his profitable and fashionable establishment after himself, the brothers name their restaurant ‘Paradise’, alluding to the transcendent aspects of the hospitality they offer, and alerting the observant viewer to parallels between the feast at the heart of the film and the heavenly banquet that is anticipated in Scripture.
Certainly there are many points of connection between the parable of the feast (Luke 14.15–24) and the banquet that Primo and Secondo host. Initially prepared and intended for an important celebrity, the lavish and lovingly prepared feast is enjoyed finally and more significantly by a rag-tag group of inconsequential neighbours, suppliers and other ring-ins, including a number of strangers invited at the last moment.
Primo, who comes across through much of the film as frustrated and melancholic, finally emerges from his shell and becomes, in a significant sense, the life of the party. With a restaurant full of appreciative guests, he is at last free to give full expression to his gifts and his calling—a calling of hospitality and service—becoming in the process the means by which the diners are blessed. As a model of true hospitality, the brothers’ big night, like the feast in Jesus’ parable, demonstrates that true, transformational hospitality is offered without any expectation of return, and it is offered to the lowly as well as the exalted.
Although Secondo is initially the driving force behind the dinner, Primo emerges as the true host since his desire is to serve and bless others rather than himself. He understands that the offering and sharing of food has a transcendent dimension, observing that ‘to eat good food is to be close to God.’ When a meal is reduced to a commercial transaction, the film suggests, it loses something important, something sacred.
The true hospitality that Primo offers stands in stark contrast to the false hospitality of Pascal, which is all rhetoric and no substance. Pascal flatters his guests, but his declarations of undying friendship and brotherly love are soon revealed as flimsy. Ultimately, he has no interest in serving others. Generosity, for him, is just a means of control, a way of getting some leverage: ‘Give to people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.’ By the end of the film, the facade of friendship has been demolished, and Pascal’s true nature is revealed: ‘I am a businessman. I am anything I need to be at any time.’
Indeed, Pascal can be viewed as a kind of Judas figure, and the brothers’ big night as a last supper of sorts, with friends gathering one last time before the day of reckoning, on the eve of the restaurant’s demise and what appears to be the death of a dream. (Pascal himself makes the allusion to the last supper when he arrives and sees the beautifully laid table running the length of the restaurant.)
The unfolding of events over the course of the evening demonstrates that true hospitality and authentic relationship should never be confused with the kind of false conviviality that relies on comforting lies and easy compromises. Rather, it requires truth-telling. It gently challenges (just as Primo’s cooking challenges the tastes of many of his American customers), and in so doing, it transforms those who are open to it.
The brothers are forced to confront their differences, and to work out what really matters to them. It’s a messy, uncomfortable process; instead of a neatly wrapped-up happy ending, we are left with loose ends and uncertainty, but also with a sense of catharsis and epiphany. Confronted by Pascal’s view of Primo as ‘an investment’—a commodity to be manipulated and owned—Secondo sees for the first time the emptiness of the worldly success he has been pursuing. He comes to a greater appreciation of his brother’s worth and dignity, and of what Primo’s hospitality means, telling Pascal, ‘You will never have my brother. He lives in a world above you. What he has, and what he is, is rare.’
In the aftermath of the party, as a new day dawns, the kitchen table becomes a place of reconciliation. In the most memorable and moving scene in the film—a single take that lasts more than five minutes, with hardly a word spoken—Secondo prepares an omelette and breaks some bread, sharing the simple meal with the waiter Cristiano (Marc Anthony) and with Primo. As they eat, the brothers silently put their arms around each other’s shoulders in a touching gesture of forgiveness.
In its quietness and ordinariness, this final scene contrasts with the extravagance and revelry of the big night, reminding us that we are spiritually nourished not only by the ‘special occasions’ in our lives—the big nights—but also by moments of quiet reflection and connection, and by the seemingly mundane acts of service, hospitality and kindness that we experience everyday.
Big Night (109 minutes) is available to rent on iTunes. It is rated M (16+ on Common Sense Media).
Fiona Basile10 August 2022
Sr Mary Helen OP10 August 2022