“To eat good food is to be close to God.”
Big Night is one of my favourite food movies, and though the focus is on those gorgeous Italian dishes (risotto tricolore, timpano…) the story also serves up truths about how much to sacrifice and settle for in life, as well as some ups and downs of the immigrant experience.
Brothers Primo and Secondo run a restaurant called Paradise. Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is the uncompromising, shy, genius chef whose main concern is the quality of his cooking, while Secondo (Stanley Tucci) has to deal with the eatery’s big financial problems. Paradise is going bankrupt, and instead of a loan, the successful competitor across the street, bombastic Pascal (Ian Holm), offers to send over “his pal” the great jazz star Louis Prima, who will dine at Paradise to generate some much-needed publicity. Prima never arrives, but the evening is nonetheless a momentous occasion, a glorious once-in-a-lifetime meal that leads to revelations about romance, life goals and the bonds of brotherhood.
One of Paradise’s big problems is represented by the hopeless couple that complain about their order early in the film. The man ignores Secondo’s guidance and overloads his pasta with Parmesan, while his wife scatters and smears her risotto all over her plate, searching for the seafood she expected to find in obvious chunks. Disappointed, she orders a side of spaghetti and meatballs, despite Secondo’s polite warnings about too many starches, delicate balances and superfluous ingredients. It’s OK to not know something, but customers like these are unwilling to try or appreciate something new, insistent that they don’t like what they’ve never even tried, oddly smug in their stubborn ignorance, and dismissive or defensive when a connoisseur tries to guide them out of their comfort zone.
That’s why Pascal’s place is doing so well; he’s not aiming to change tastes or introduce new things. As he tells Secondo, just give the people what they want and can easily recognize, because most folks are allergic to anything demanding or challenging. There’s a place and time for comfort food, even when it’s inauthentic and overdone like a lot of Pascal’s “Italian,” but over at Paradise we will see what a shame it is to go through life without the curiosity and desire to expand tastes, to miss out on the thrill and joy of something classier, deeper, more fulfilling.
Primo is understandably frustrated with such Philistines, and refuses to cater to their closed minds and reaffirm their so-called tastes; he wants to teach people to like real, divine Italian food or else he’ll go back overseas where his talents are wanted. Secondo reminds him they need the paying customers and a restaurant is a business, not a school. Both are right, and so goes their volatile relationship, as well as the greater argument over how to keep art pure, personal and aspirational vs. how much to alter and dumb it down to something commercial and mainstream. How much of that compromise is selling out and rewarding the mediocre masses?
For Primo especially, that integrity, his recipes, the restaurant’s personality, direction and success are about being true to his roots. These concerns (along with a fun scene about ESL and literal translation getting in the way of punch lines) reflect the immigrant’s struggle with assimilation: how much of adapting to life in a new country is necessary adjustment, and how much is abandoning and forgetting the heart of one’s heritage? How long do you hang in and try to fit in after failure that’s linked to who you are?
Big Night’s food is the most direct form of communication when other ways are too awkward. Primo is bad a small talk and courtship but impresses his love interest, florist Ann (Allison Janney) with a taste of his cooking. A simple fritatta, prepared in silence (and one nice take) the morning after the big brotherly blowup, becomes a peace offering and moment of bonding. Like the food at Paradise, nothing in this movie is excessive; just presented in lovely simplicity. Few films so delightfully capture mouth-watering meals, the love and skill that goes into preparing them, and the importance and joy of sharing them with people you care about.
This post is one of the courses in The Food in Film Blogathon, hosted by me and Silver Screenings. Please click here to taste more!