Italian for Intermediates

Scott Baio reawakens his heritage in The Bread, My Sweet

If your name ends in a vowel and your people came over in steerage a hundred years ago, you will almost certainly find yourself in the kitchen these days, wooden spoon in hand, plum tomatoes draining in the colander, thoughts drifting between sweet nostalgia and the malaise of indefinable loss. Second- and third-generation Italian-Americans are not the only immigrant offspring trying of late to recapture something of their forebears' Old World ways; they just tend, more than many groups, to direct the effort onto their dinner plates. Under the new, uneasy rules governing ethnic reclamation, if you can't do a decent reproduction of your grandmother's fabled pollo cacciatore, you've probably lost your soul.

This urge -- to immerse in fast-vanishing authenticity -- is almost certainly the motivation behind The Bread, My Sweet, an independent film of mixed virtues shot for about 50 bucks in the Italian section of Pittsburgh. The first-time writer-director, a playwright named Melissa Martin, announces without guile that her inspiration was a colorful old Italian couple who lived upstairs during her formative years and who imparted to her all kinds of traditional, soul-of-the-people values. Certainly, The Bread, My Sweet is an attempt to revive the valuable spirit of her neighbors, and it firmly takes up the nostalgiaphile view that we'd better get grandma's chicken into the oven pretty fast before everything goes to hell. Comfort food equals craft, capeesh? And not just craft, salvation.

As Martin would have it, the bearer of this message is a young businessman named Dominic Pyzola (Happy Days fixture Scott Baio) who is living the inevitable double life. Weekdays, nine-to-five, he's a corporate raider downtown, firing people, trampling dreams, flaunting the decorations of his status -- a silver Porsche Boxter, hand-tailored suits, a ruthless pride of purpose. Back in the neighborhood, though, "Dommy" manages to be "as good as bread" (every Italian mama's ideal), making loaves and biscotti the old-fashioned way in the family bakery, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his wise-ass brother Eddie (Billy Mott) and his innocent, slightly retarded brother Pino (Shuler Hensley).

Get ready for a tug o' war between Old and New, Real and Fake.

The people upstairs in Dominic's life are beloved to him, too, as he's always been their surrogate son. Crusty old Massimo (John Seitz) makes his own wine and talks in a strange patois less Italian-sounding than pseudo-American Indian ("Me no like weddings; me no like church"). Massimo's kindly old wife, Bella (Rosemary Prinz), is a standard-issue household saint who saves her dollars in Medaglia D'Oro coffee cans, praying for a happy marriage for her wayward, adventurous daughter Lucca (Kristin Minter, who plays Randi on E.R.).

Shopping for conflict? Thanks to a tumor, the stoic Bella has but six months to live. That means, well, what does that mean? In the end, it means that our Dominic must make a choice between the synthetic, processed world of his day job and the twin tugs of family and tradition. Remember the two vivid Italian brothers in Big Night, torn between art and commerce? Dom's quandary is similar, if much less ably dramatized. He must try to retrieve Bella's rebellious daughter and quickly marry her in time to give the old woman one last pleasure in life. That Lucca and Dom scarcely know each other (and don't really care to) is beside the point.

We can, of course, see the movie's pivotal irony and its romantic punch line coming a mile away, but that wouldn't matter if The Bread, My Sweet had the kind of vivid characters and observant moments we saw in, say, that classic of the Italian-American domestic drama, Moonstruck. Instead, Martin's film is more well-meant than well-made, and its homey charms are often sullied by false notes and stock portrayals. The sleek, calm-tempered Baio is intermittently interesting in the lead -- he subtly portrays the storm within -- but Seitz and Prinz both play the ethnic card to a fare-thee-well, and Minter is so whiny and pettish as the wayward daughter you half hope someone will toss her off the roof, along with her glass of homemade Chianti.

Bread played well in Pittsburgh for almost two years and won some prizes at minor film festivals, but its forced sensitivity gets abrasive, and Martin lays the cultural authenticity on so thick you may feel like you're smothering in marinara. Sincerity is one thing, ham-fisted manipulation quite another, no matter where your grandparents came from or what you choose to eat.

 
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