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Slow, Tough Climb Up `Hill'

Corrente Tracks Young Italians in Providence `hood

By Sarah C. Dry


Federal Hill

Starring Nicholas Tuturro and Anthony De Sando

directed by Michael Corrente

Playing at Sony Fresh Pond

Shot on location in working-class Providence, Rhode Island, "Federal Hill" presents tough Italians on their own turf. Given the interesting group of young guys the camera tracks, and the freshness of newcomer writer/director Michael Corrente, the odds for success would seem good.

Occasionally the low-budget film achieves moments which capture the antsy, interior world of close male friends in the tradition of "American Graffiti" or "Dinner." Too often, however, static camera work, awkward acting and the deliberate plod of the plot hinder potentially sharp interactions.

Perky Brown student Wendy (Libby Langdon) comes into the working class neighborhood of Federal Hill to buy coke for a frat party from Nicky (Anthony De Sando). She is jumpy as a deer, but Nicky is caught by her blond good-looks. He pursues her with the dedication and focus of a hunter, luring Wendy away from the ivied walls of Brown and into his own boisterous neighborhood. In Federal Hill, spaghetti leads to sex, and Nicky's seduction of Wendy follows an introduction to the pleasures of good pasta and wine.

The romance between the two is rough and casual. Wendy is messing around--it's clear she doesn't really take Nicky, or his neighborhood, seriously. Nicky is more taken with Wendy, but his affection for her, given their interaction, seems unwarranted.

Though Nicky's affair with Wendy provides a central plot line for the film, the shenanigans of Nicky's crew are more interesting and unpredictable. Ralph (Nicholas Turturro) is the most engaging of the guys who get together to play poker, get drunk and engage in the kind of good-natured, explosive joking familiar from other films. His behavior--erratic, violent, tinged with sexual aggression and defensiveness--adds the only true element of surprise and discomfort to the film.

When Bobby (Jason Andrews) reveals that he is, "In the hole for thirty large," Ralph immediately focuses his wild energy on helping his friend. His plan--typically hackneyed and illegal--involves copying the keys of rich folks while they dine and later robbing their houses. The film's eventual denouement hinges on the fact that some of the rich men happen to be "Made Guys," top brass in the local mob.

Turturro, (whose brother, John, starred in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing") successfully combines scenes of homophobic rage with tender moments of bathing his weak-brained old dad. His ability to span this emotional range saves "Federal Hill" from a nearly one-sided tone of frenetic boyish energy. While Nicky and his other friends clearly demonstrate their desire to become good men, their performances never quite make the leap from edgy conversation and bravado into deep feeling.

Of the friends, Ralph is the most upset by what he considers Nicky's betrayal of the group and the neighborhood. "All she wants from you is your cock and your coke," he screams at the love struck Nicky. His words are refreshing because, though vulgar, they capture the essence of Wendy's good-hearted, but casual, approach. His toughness simultaneously hides and accentuates his desire to protect Ralph.

The scenes unique to Providence reward Corrente's choice to film in black and white. Shots of the outdoor food joint Haven Brothers attain a semi-documentary effort-lessness rarely seen in the movies. A pair of excellent cameos by two Federal Hill residents--one a tailor who admonishes one of the boys for a "funny money" deal, the other a pawn shop owner who, after sizing up a stolen ring, tells Ralph to take the ring, get out and not come back--relax the occasionally awkward machinations of the plot and makes the Hill feel real.

"Federal Hill" refuses to take the easy way out. Near the end of the film, Ralph answers Nicky's question, "I wanted to leave the Hill, can you believe that?" with a characteristically brash reply, "So let's go. We'll just go, anywhere." Given what's gone before, the audience knows that's impossible, Instead, after a final, chilling shot, black and white blur into the realistic gray of masonry cement.

The drama in "Federal Hill" is un-American, unaided by satisfying camera movement and impeded by occasionally awkward performances from inexperienced movie actors. Though commendable for his obvious dedication to realism and down-to-earth movie-making, Corrente overestimates the attention span of movie-goers and underestimates their sophistication.

Asking hard questions and refusing to provide answers, "Federal Hill" is a praise-worthy first attempt to capture the difficulty of coming of age in a world with limited scope. But, the film leaves the viewer unsure of the precise nature of the problems in the neighborhood, and in its young men. Like life itself, the result is frustrating and inconclusive.

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