As morphing and other digital editing techniques become common practices and receive wider applications, does cinema remain in any sense at all a record of reality, or does it merge into a form of animation? That question seems remote from the humble ethnic drama Two Family House, written and directed by newcomer Raymond de Felitta. His film focuses on an Italian-American couple resettling in an Irish-American neighborhood to open up a bar. What could be more metaphysically mundane? Yet de Felitta enters the philosophical fray, on account of his having refused to build a single set for a film that portrays Staten Island in the 1950s, and which includes a large number of exterior scenes. His crew selected local and nearby neighborhoods that had 'existed in a vacuum' for half a century or more. A traditional approach would have called for constructing at least a few fa‡ades, and digital editing would have been employed to erase fragments in the picture that didn't fit the right time frame. Yet, de Felitta's film is like photographing the past, or slices of it. You can well guess that a few feet outside the composition of some shots lie disturbing anachronisms, but inside, the past slides into the present. All things considered, the costumes, talk and predicaments belong with the actual locations. De Felitta tells a story based on a relative's life. These clothing styles and conflicts were once there, where we see. The goal of Two Family House doesn't really seem to be a recreation, but a revisit.

De Felitta spotlights his care for realism with the central setting, a broken-down house. An abode weathered by the years is hard to improve for dilapidated beauty. However, it's the one structure that changes onscreen-and the clever rationale is that the characters in the story remodel it. Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli) buys this property cheap, but with big plans. All his life, he's wanted to call his own shots. In the Army, he nearly got his chance, when Arthur Godfrey complimented his singing and told Buddy to look him up after the war. But Buddy's fiance Estelle (Katherine Narducci) vetoes the opportunity; to her, he needs to dry up and think straight. Estelle does have a point: His ventures never seem to fly. Buddy chooses marriage and a factory job over his dream, but his wife can't stop him from wishing. Buddy's latest scheme, purchasing the house, shows the entertainment bug is still in him. With the help of buddies, he'll convert the downstairs to a lounge and the upstairs to living quarters. But Estelle finds three quick reasons to disapprove: The building as it stands is musty, dingy and dirty; it's in a 'mick' neighborhood; and a couple of 'micks,' a besotted ruffian (Kevin Conway) and his abused, pregnant wife (Kelly Macdonald), live there now, and are holding fast. Buddy's irrepressible ambition and Estelle's adherence to convention are grinding up the gears of their marriage-and her husband's delicacy over this woman in distress soon overloads the motor.

For once, an American urban movie skips the flag-waving etiquette of ethnic reconciliation. Buddy doesn't bring people together; he crosses a line. Movies regularly typecast and celebrate mid-century Italian-Americans as the forerunners of all of us: loud and proud, violent and compulsive, but loyal and self-sufficient. De Felitta locks on this stereotype and interrogates it. Estelle, the movie's most morally ambiguous character, stands by the formula for success and her tradition-which only elicit her provincialism. Her extravagant revenge isn't a glorious eruption of passion, just pointless. De Felitta demands better of the national tribal symbol, brooking no waste or prejudice.

Often, repairing a house implies community spirit and honest labor. De Felitta asks: What if that community is antagonistic? Buddy's virtues are his soldiering along, na™ve hope and big heart. Constructing his bar is what John Ford-as Irish-American as they come-might have called a 'job of work,' ending in something solid and professional. His establishment, a token of tolerance, winds up a fixture in the neighborhood. What appears to excite de Felitta is when someone or something tenaciously holds ground, either out of principle or against the encroachment of time.

--Peter Henne