If I know anything about Italian film, it’s because I learned it from my friend, Ric Menello. And the more I came to learn about the films Ric loved, the more I came to know Ric.
I met Ric Menello at Vox Pop, an art café in Brooklyn, in about 2006. Balding, wearing thick glasses, Ric looked a little wild, like maybe he was crazy. But when Ric spoke you listened. His knowledge of film and even of literature was encyclopedic. It was like Ric knew something about everything.
The night I met him he was showing Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City at Vox Pop, which I hadn’t yet seen. Ric curated the film series at Vox Pop. This was one of his favorite films.
“Are you here to see Rome, Open City?” Ric asked, greeting me as I walked into the café. I shook my head no. I had actually come to meet a friend.
But I asked what was playing, out of curiosity. Ric gladly told me.
“Do you know what Open City is about?” Ric asked, scratching his beard as he spoke, narrowing his eyes. Ric was a portly man. He often looked disheveled, wearing shirts with stains on them and pants with tears. To be honest, he looked like a homeless person.
I said I didn’t.
“It’s about fear,” he continued, in his strong Brooklyn accent. Like watching the film was dangerous. “It’s about Italy’s need to confess its sins to the world.” As Ric spoke he rocked back and forth, like a he was praying.
“Italians are a very guilt-ridden people,” said Ric.
I nodded, listening. Though Ric was intense, his eyes were heavy and sad.
“I should know,” he added, now smiling, his black bushy Groucho Marx eyebrows arched across his eyes. “I’m Italian.”
Rossellini didn’t have Fellini’s cinematographic eye, said Ric, or De Sica’s skill to translate the ordinary into something holy. Rossellini’s films portrayed defeated people in vulnerable circumstances. And despite their poverty and vulnerability, Rossellini’s characters stood for what they believed – even in the face of death.
“How do you know so much about film?” I asked, truly interested now to know who this person was.
“I went to NYU’s film school,” said Ric, wincing over his glasses. He often spoke like it hurt him to talk. “I’ve also directed some music videos and other crap,” he sighed, understating his background. I would later learn that Ric directed the Beastie Boys’ “You Gotta Fight” and “No Sleep till Brooklyn.” He then wrote a few screenplays for James Gray. He was also an advisor to a number of directors who viewed Ric as a film historian and expert. They’d call or email him for advice. Ric was Hollywood’s secret weapon. The funny thing is, I didn’t learn all of this in full until after knowing Ric for a number of years.
Then I’d see Ric at Vox Pop and on Cortelyou Road, wandering the streets. I’d often run into him when I was with my then ten-year-old son, Theo. After picking up Theo from school, we’d go to eat at Vox Pop. And Ric would be sprawled out at a table, writing in his notebook.
One day, at the beginning of the school year, we met Ric at Vox Pop.
“How are you?” he asked Theo, exhaling, like seeing my son took an enormous existential weight off his shoulders. “School good?” Theo looked at me before answering. At ten years old, he didn’t yet know what to make of Ric. Theo knew that Ric wasn’t like other people.
“Do you like cowboy films?” Ric asked. Theo said yes. “You should watch Rio Bravo with your father. It’s one of the great all-time films.” Ric knew how to engage Theo. And he knew that if he wanted to talk to me, he had to include my son in the conversation. And Ric and I wanted to talk to each other. We’d come from Italian families, grew up and out of the same borough neighborhoods.
If I saw Ric on Cortelyou, I’d ask him to hang out. He’d say that he’d hang out if I bought him a pizza, which of course I did. If Ric had made money with the success he’d had, he certainly didn’t have any now. I didn’t realize until much later the extent of Ric’s issues, that’d he’d suffered from a deep depression. That he had serious bouts of mental illness.
When I did music performances at Vox Pop, I would call Ric and ask him to come.
“You know our deal, right?” he’d ask.
“I’ll buy you all of the seltzer you’d like,” I’d say. Ric didn’t drink alcohol. Ric would position himself right at the front of the audience and stomp and clap when I played “Me and My Uncle.”
Since we lived in the same neighborhood, we wound up spending a good amount of time together. We didn’t have to call each other, for the most part.
During this time, I had been developing a friendship with a writer, David Evanier, who had written a book called Making the Wiseguys Weep. Wiseguys is a great story. It’s about Jimmy Roselli, a singer contemporary with Frank Sinatra who refused to be cowed by the Mob. Instead, he made them weep with his beautiful and authentic singing style. And he sang in the Neapolitan dialect, which made him even more emotionally necessary to Italians like my father and apparently Ric’s uncles and relatives, too. I had written to David after reading his book; we corresponded, then met. When David told me he’d been looking for someone to write the screenplay to Wiseguys, I thought of Ric.
“Can he write this screenplay?” asked David. After all, Wiseguys was his baby. He wouldn’t work with just anyone.
“I know him from the neighborhood,” I said. “Ric wrote the screenplay for Two Lovers, among other things. Also, he grew up in Brooklyn. He knew the people you write about in Wiseguys. Look, meet with him. See if you think he’s a good fit.”
I received a call after they met.
“Where did you meet this guy?” David asked me. “He’s amazing.” Apparently, David and Ric really hit it off. They agreed to work together.
While Ric was writing the screenplay, we agreed that he and David would come over to my house to watch Ric’s suggested films, as if we were all preparing Ric to write the screenplay.
When we watched Mafioso, starring Alberto Sordi, Arielle, my wife, made a ravioli dish she learned from a Sicilian cookbook I had bought.
“This is most delicious ravioli I ever ate,” said Ric, slurping as he ravenously scarfed down his food, rocking back and forth.
I shoved more from the bowl into his plate.
“Delicious,” he repeated, pointing at the ravioli with his fork.
While we ate, we were also preparing my then two-year-old son, Travis, for bed. This time, Travis had just come out of the shower and bolted naked across the living room.
“Look at Travis,” said Ric, “he’s like a little wild man.”
Ric loved coming to our house. It made him feel at home. Many people in our neighborhood treated Ric like he was the guy who directed the Beastie Boys. But to us, he was a family friend. Ric returned the warmth he received by being incredibly thankful and kind. Our family reminded him of his family and he took great comfort in this. The fact is my entire relationship with Ric was built around him knowing my sons and my wife.
Over that summer we watched a number of films, accompanied by Ric’s narration. Among his favorites were Salvatore Giuliano, Hands Over the City and Christ Stopped at Eboli by Francesco Rosi, Variety Lights by Alberto Lattuada and Il Generale Della Rovere by Rossellini.
Then, after about six months, Ric asked if he could read a draft of the screenplay for Wiseguys aloud. This time, our friend Angela, an aspiring screenplay writer, also joined us.
We served meatloaf that night. “This the best meatloaf I’ve ever had,” said Ric, scarfing his food with gusto.
“Wait, that’s what you say about my meatloaf!” said Angela. We all laughed.
After we ate, Ric began reading the screenplay. Ric infused the stories with characters out of his own life. I’d heard him talk about an uncle who sang on the same bill with Roselli. Ric’s uncle became one of the characters in a scene. Ric imitated the voices and speech of the characters. You could tell that reading the story reminded him of family he missed. When he finished reading, we all sat silent. Angela wiped the tears from her face. David got up to go to the bathroom.
“Tell David I said goodnight,” said Ric, shaking my hand as he walked out the door.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m just tired,” said Ric, but I knew it was more than that. He’d been talking about the world he grew up in, the family he loved that were now all gone. He buried them in the story. I knew how he felt because I felt the same way.
Not long after the screenplay was finished, Ric suddenly died of heart attack. Although he wasn’t a heathy person, it took us all by surprise.
At his wake, Arielle read a poem I wrote for Ric – I was afraid to read it and cry in front of everyone. Debi Ryan, the owner of Vox Pop, walked up to Ric’s casket, broke a muffin in pieces and spread it on top of Ric’s body. It was shocking. She turned around to face everyone.
“Now, this is the Ric I know,” she said. And she was right.
Then Tom Martinez, a friend in the neighborhood, who also happened to be a Unitarian minister, got up to speak and read from The Velveteen Rabbit. He quoted from the scene where the Skin Horse is telling the Rabbit about how you become real.
“You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
At this, everyone at the wake was in tears. This quote encapsulated what we all knew about Ric. Ric didn’t look or act perfect. But he was always real. Ric could make you laugh, but he also knew the sadness you felt. He had that insight. Watching the Italian neorealist films, growing up with people who watched them, from a culture that allowed you to be sad, to cry, and to show weakness, made Ric a person of enormous feeling and emotion. We felt his sadness but he didn’t weigh it down on us. Ric was proud. He didn’t want everyone to know his issues, though we all knew he had serious issues. Instead, he smiled and joked. Finally, we knew Ric’s sadness because he knew ours.
Mike Fiorito lives in Brooklyn, NY. His stories have appeared in Narratively, Mad Swirl, The Good Men Project and Brownstone Poetry. He is currently working on a short story collection called “Crooners”