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    still from the 1996 movie Big Night

    Dante’s Big Night

    Italian Food and the Bread of Angels

    By John-Paul Heil

    August 29, 2021
    • Steve

      Great Movie

    • Scott Pope

      Being a huge fan of Babette’s Feast and having been recently enamored by the influence of Dante, who I have yet to read, on others I know, I am delighted to learn of this film and the summary provided here!

    Late in the 1996 comedy Big Night, world-class chef Primo (Tony Shalhoub) prepares Fiorentina sauce for his crush, Ann (Allison Janney). Primo and his younger brother Secondo (Stanley Tucci) immigrated to America to live out their dream of opening a restaurant, but their restaurant is failing because Primo will not adjust his cooking to fit mid-1950s American conceptions of Italian food. (One shudders to think how Primo would react to Olive Garden.)

    Primo thus far has not revealed why he is so adamantly committed to culinary excellence. But as Ann tries the sauce, repeatedly declaring “Oh my God!” as she tastes how good it is, Primo affirms, “‘Oh my God!’ is right. Now you know. To eat good food is to be close to God. You know what they say: to have the … knowledge of God is the bread of angels. I’m never sure what that means, but it’s true anyway.”

    still from the 1996 movie Big Night

    Still taken from Big Night

    Christian themes permeate Big Night, which celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of its domestic release this month. Sometimes these themes are overt: A Catholic priest is present at the film’s climactic dinner. The emptiness of the brothers’ restaurant, Paradise, contrasts with the perpetually red-lit competing Italian restaurant down the street, Pascal’s. Pascal himself (Ian Holm), the story’s antagonist, is introduced wreathed in the fire of a flambé dish.

    But beyond these obvious elements, Big Night’s treatment of sin and redemption evoke the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, who died seven hundred years ago on September 14. Dante’s three-part travelogue through the afterlife conceives of sin and the world as a distracting force, “false images of good, / which promise all and never follow through” (Purgatorio 30.130–32), which guides us away from the “the bread of angels, such a food / as brings men to life and never fills them full” until they reach the One who makes it (Paradiso 2.11–12). Like Dante, whom Pope Francis recently called “a prophet of hope and … witness to the innate yearning for the infinite present in the human heart,” Big Night finds hope for human redemption in communion, forgiveness, and providence’s ability to guide us to the truth through our own failings (Inferno 1.7–9).

    Much of Big Night’s plot centers around Secondo, who initially seems like the Martha to Primo’s Mary. While Primo is blissfully unaware of Paradise’s financial problems, alienating ignorant diners who demand meatballs with their spaghetti and accepting payment in paintings rather than cash from one of his few repeat customers, Secondo undergoes humiliation from a bank owner who rejects further extensions on the restaurant’s loans. Personal anxieties compound financial woes. Secondo is torn between his brother, whose social awkwardness and difficulty with English leave him with a limited social circle, and his girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver), who wants Secondo to propose to her despite Secondo’s hesitance regarding physical intimacy.

    In a last-ditch effort to save the restaurant from foreclosure, Secondo approaches Pascal, whom Primo hates, for help. Pascal offers to invite famous jazz singer Louis Prima to Paradise for a banquet to stir up publicity. Secondo convinces Primo that this is their last chance: if this dinner goes poorly, the restaurant will close.

    As the brothers prepare for their big night, they reveal very different reasons for their commitment to the shared dream. Early in the film, Primo refuses Secondo’s suggestion to take risotto – an unpopular, expensive, time-intensive dish – off the menu. “If you give people time, they learn,” he tells Secondo. Secondo retorts, “I don’t have time for them to learn. This is a restaurant, not a fucking school.”

    While Primo sees the restaurant as pedagogical and formational, Secondo sees it as a means for worldly success. He envies Pascal, who boasts about knowing celebrities, is rich enough to buy a boat on a whim, and whose restaurant is packed with customers who park Cadillacs, a recurring symbol of everything Secondo wants, out front. Despite criticizing Primo for his initial reluctance to take Louis Prima’s visit seriously, Secondo spends the afternoon before the dinner test-driving a Cadillac and sleeping with Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), Pascal’s girlfriend, while Primo and Phyllis work in the kitchen.

    Secondo believes in the American dream. He contrasts life in Italy, where “you work hard and there is nothing,” with America, which the foul-mouthed Pascal calls “the land of fucking opportunity.” Though we never learn what happened to Secondo in Italy, he never wants to return. He tells Cadillac salesman Bob (director Campbell Scott) “I will never go back. … In Italy, there’s nothing but history.”

    Secondo’s slow seduction by self-glorification and consumerism, embodied in Pascal, mirrors the Comedy’s account of sin. Like Dante, who midway through his life’s journey found himself in a dark wood of sin because he “wandered from the straight and true” (Inf. 1.3), Secondo is, in Primo’s words, a “wanderer.” Worldly ambition, lust, and pride drive Secondo away from the right path his brother follows, just as they did Dante. The “dark mist of the world” weighs Secondo down with heaviness of spirit (Purg. 11.30).

    still from the 1996 movie Big Night

    Still taken from Big Night

    Secondo spurns his brother, insulting him behind his back to Pascal and Bob. He complains he is tired, that the stress of his life is all too much, and that he cannot commit to anything permanent, like “a man who unwills what he wills, / changing his plan for every little thought, / till he withdraws from any kind of start” (Inf. 2.37–39). His disordered and restless life is juxtaposed to Primo’s, who, even when Louis Prima fails to appear for the grand feast, cares more about the quality of the meal and the enrichment of those eating it than whether the restaurant succeeds or fails. His peace is not contingent on success, but on something higher: “the power of love subdues [his] will,” like the souls in heaven who “long for only what we have / and thirst for nothing else” (Par. 3.70–72).

    As the night drags on and their guests get drunker, the brothers are forced to begin the dinner without Louis Prima. In a sequence reminiscent of Babette’s Feast, the brothers serve courses of sumptuous Italian dishes to their guests, who consume them vigorously. (Don’t watch this film hungry.) The meal’s centerpiece, an elaborate pasta dish called timpano, makes even Pascal begrudgingly admit Primo’s genius.

    The dinner’s gratuitous splendor brings the small community together, changes the lives of those who partake in it, and reveals the truth. Phyllis discovers Secondo’s infidelity after she catches him kissing Gabriella. As Phyllis storms out, Gabriella breaks from Pascal and, out of gratitude for “the best meal I will probably ever have,” reveals to Primo that Pascal lied: he never invited Louis Prima. Secondo follows Phyllis to the beach, where she submerges herself in the water and walks off into the night, leaving Secondo behind.

    When Primo arrives to tell Secondo about Pascal’s lie, the conflict between the brothers boils over. Primo reveals that their uncle has offered the brothers jobs at his new restaurant in Rome, but Secondo refuses to admit defeat and chooses to stay in America, spitefully telling Primo to “go back” and “let someone else take care of you.” Primo accuses Secondo of having “rotted,” and Secondo retorts that Primo has done nothing while Secondo has done everything. As the argument devolves into a bathos-laden fistfight, Primo finally unloads on Secondo, declaring that he has tried to teach Secondo, but Secondo has learned nothing. “Why do you want to stay here?” he yells. “This place is eating us alive! If I sacrifice my work, it dies. It’s better that I die.”

    As Secondo returns to Paradise, he confronts Pascal, who admits that he ruined the brothers not because of Secondo’s affair with Gabriella, but because he wanted Primo, “a great investment,” to work for him. Secondo asserts that “you will never have my brother. He lives in a world above you. What he has, and what he is, is rare. You are nothing.” Pascal answers that he is simply a “businessman … anything I need to be at any time. What are you?”

    Secondo is a sinner. Led astray by a clear stand-in for “the father of lies” (Inf. 23.144), Secondo cares more for the “lying pleasures” (Purg. 31.34–36) of “this little patch of earth that makes us … so fierce” (Par. 22.151) than what Primo knows is important: the bread of angels.

    Big Night concludes with a Dantean possibility of redemption. After talking to Pascal, Secondo prepares an omelet for the restaurant’s waiter, the taciturn Cristiano (Marc Anthony), his first truly selfless act. Primo silently enters. Secondo sets a place for him without saying anything. As Cristiano leaves, the two brothers wordlessly eat and embrace. The film does not reveal what happens next – if the brothers return to Italy, stay in America, or go their separate ways. Instead, the film chooses to focus on what matters most: reconciliation made manifest in the literal breaking of bread.

    Contributed By

    John-Paul Heil is a Ph.D candidate in Early Modern History at the University of Chicago and an adjunct professor at Mount St. Mary's University. John-Paul is an Italian Fulbright scholar for the 2021–22 academic year and has published with the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Catholic Historical Review, and the Journal of Catholic Higher Education.

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