August 30, 2021

THE CULTURE WARS ARE A ROUT (profanity alert):

Dante's Big NightItalian Food and the Bread of Angels (John-Paul Heil, AUGUST 30, 2021, Plough)

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."

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).

Posted by at August 30, 2021 12:00 AM


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