Mariano, Written by Chase Brogan
The story of Mariano Messini is familiar and heartwarming. It draws upon themes of mid-century Italian-American life in New York City, employing powerful, culturally relevant, translatable nostalgia within a classic narrative framework.
Alex Messini rushes to the hospital where his grandfather, Mariano Messini, is being treated for a heart attack. His doctor, Rachel Wilkins, insists that Mariano rest in his hospital bed under her supervision, but he adamantly refuses to cancel his concert on Saturday: it turns out that Mariano Messini is a well known musician, and his concert on Saturday will be his first show in more than a decade. Mariano insists that he will perform after a few days’ rest, and his relationship with his grandson, who has taken a leave from work to be with his grandfather, provides the perfect narrative terrain for telling Mariano’s life story. As it turns out, the aging virtuoso has quite a story.
Mariano’s storytelling transports us to New York’s Little Italy in 1937, where his father (Alex’s great grandfather) Santino Messini runs an instrument shop called Santino’s Musica. ‘My father was a hardworking man and one hell of a pianist’, says Mariano. The store is stocked with beautiful instruments – ‘handcrafted violins’, ‘an Italian grand piano’ – and Mariano credits everything he knows about music to his growing up in that store, where he spent ‘every day practicing on unsold pianos’.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to this rosy picture. As Mariano explains, ‘in those days there was a high cost for doing business in Little Italy’. The Mafia brutalizes the family and extorts sums of cash from Santino’s shop. The relationship between the family and the Mafia becomes complex as the secrets grow and as young Mariano becomes increasingly involved in the organisation. The story’s framework is familiar in the way Mafia films often are: murder, lies, and exploitation contrast with familial love and the cultural symbols of Italian-American life; there is plenty of room for dramatic irony and revenge.
The screenplay displays a strong grasp of effective storytelling techniques which create depth across space and time. The elderly Mariano Messini tells the whole story from his hospital bed, and the viewer experiences the story through the eyes of Mariano’s recollection; his voice frames scenes with narration to enhance the viewer’s understanding of his subjective experiences. Most of the film is a memory, and the occasional return to the hospital room of the present day reminds us of that fact. Continuous, simultaneous scenes also interact with each other to juxtapose good and evil: a loving, hard-working family on the one hand and menacing criminals on the other.
The screenplay’s writer, Chase Brogan, offers a particularly detailed conception of the film’s visual aspects. Brogan describes scenes and physical features unambiguously, and one can immediately visualise them:
Santino Messini is ‘a forty seven year old Italian immigrant, dressed in a slightly worn three piece suit’; his wife Adalina is ‘a beautiful forty two year old woman, dressed in a double-breasted baby blue dress with her thick brown hair tucked beneath an off white cloche’; young Mariano is ‘seven years old, dressed in a gray, three button sweater and a worn pair of brown trousers’ who ‘frantically runs up the crowded sidewalk, weaving in and out of oncoming pedestrians’.
Mafia Boss Giuseppe Squitieri is ‘a monstrously overweight brute in his late fifties, donning a fine Italian three piece suit under a black overcoat’; his colleague Anthony “Big Tony” Resiglio is ‘the overweight manager of the supper club, dressed in a pair of loose slacks held up by a set of overly stretched suspenders over a sweat drenched tank top’ who, in introducing himself, ‘sticks out his giant hand’.
At the Bella Gusto Supper Club, ‘a vacant black hostess stand sits to one side of the main entrance. Black U-shaped booths line the restaurant’s brick walls. Square four person dining tables, set with sterling silver flatware over white polyester tablecloths surround a black Steinway grand piano at the center of the restaurant’.
These precise descriptions make for fun reading, and perhaps more importantly, they provide specific instructions for the film’s production design. However, Brogan also makes a pointed choice not to describe the style of music that makes Mariano so famous. We know that he plays piano, we know that people are mesmerised by his performances until the final note of each song, but we never get close to hearing the music that everyone else hears; it constantly ‘cascades over’ or ‘fills’ his performance venues, but what that sounds like will be up to the film’s future director.
There are some predictable problems with the screenplay that stem from its subject matter. The ‘mob’ or ‘Mafia’ subgenre of crime film is rife with clichés, and Mariano is not immune. The story is simple: good versus evil (with some complexities along the way). The Messini family is so purely good that even their names evoke positive Christian connotations: Messini – Messiah; Santino – Little Saint; Mariano – derived from Mary; Adalina – derived from the Old Germanic for noble. On the other hand, the slimy Mafia Boss Giuseppe Squitieri is pure evil. So evil, in fact, that his monstrous disregard for life borders the absurd: he seems to parody himself without meaning to. Whilst Santino dies from a heart attack during a shakedown led by Squitieri (an early event in the story), Squitieri ‘glares down’ at him, spits on his writhing body, and tells the dying man, ‘You did this to yourself’. It’s too repulsive for words, but it’s also unbelievable. Instead of being terrifying, Squitieri comes off as two-dimensional and cartoonish, a pale reflection of a person, but not himself human – and therefore not much to be afraid of. When the impossibly good meets the impossibly evil, the result is more of a fairy tale than a story based in reality.
The mid-century time period lends itself too easily to nostalgic clichés of the era. Mariano first meets famed music producer Frankie Fusaro in an alleyway, his silhouette leaning against a brick wall and his face briefly illuminated by the flame of a cigarette lighter. The imagery of this scene is perfectly clear even without the benefit of film because this exact scene has already appeared countless times in movies of this genre. The alleyway, the silhouette, the leaning, and especially the cigarette – it’s all been done before, and in that order. When the elderly Francesca Vertucci offers Mariano a prized possession shortly after having just met him, it feels less like a significant gesture and more like the fulfillment of an obligatory cliché – the wise Italian woman bestowing a precious object to a new generation. (Francesca is perfect, too: a two-dimensional heart of gold.)
Other plot points feel forced as well. President of Paramore Records Vincent Lozano, for instance, takes surprisingly little convincing to change his mind about releasing Mariano’s album. The giggling Dr. Rachel Wilkins inexplicably seems to be constantly studying a clipboard and behaving rather unlike a physician. And Mariano’s Italian-American mother always appears to be cooking pasta; she’s as perfect as the mob is evil.
The Mafia plot line of childhood trauma and revenge unfolds in a new context – the story of a virtuoso pianist and composer – but the premises are the same, and so are the characters. The work as a whole reflects a history of a crime genre, but it does little to move beyond that history. The plot is simplistic, and it has the charm of a fairy tale. With a little more depth and character development, it could also approach reality. ■
Length: 88 pages
Genre: Crime, Feature, Screenplay
Country: United States
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Chase Brogan is an independent writer based in Meriden, Connecticut.
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: iStock.com/LiliGraphie.