We interrupt the liturgical flow of this season for a bulletin about a film, so readers can catch it before it leaves their cities. One of the finest this year, it features a black classical pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), and his driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer who had been working in New York City’s Copacabana club.
Based on a true story, the two embark on a concert tour of the south in the sixties–when they need a guide book (the “Green”) to identify hotels and restaurants that will serve African-Americans. Most of those places are pretty dismal, and it’s painful to watch the highly educated, refined Shirley adapt to such scruffy quarters.
But the journey (as in most metaphors) becomes more than a series of scheduled performances. It’s poetic to watch the fastidious Don Shirley eat fried chicken with his hands for the first time—Vallelonga got a bucket of Kentucky Fried in Kentucky. Tony is so uneducated, he refers to a classical trio as “the band” and Chopin as “Joe Pan.” His letters to his wife begin at a third grade level, but Don coaxes him into a lyric romanticism. Their discoveries of each other are shot through with humor, and the random match brings together two who are brilliantly suited.
The duo encounter blatant, violent racism and the audience legitimately fears for their safety. Tony is shocked by the insults to the superb musician, but always defends him, so his “bruiser” skills come in handy. Deep down, Tony holds marvelous good, which Don comes to appreciate. With frequent starts and stops, they develop a friendship which continued until their deaths in 2013, within a few months of each other.
Those who have studied the True and False self can see how much energy Don pours into maintaining his tuxedoed façade—which may explain why he drinks so much. But in the final scenes, he heroically drives his exhausted driver through a blizzard so Tony can rejoin his family for Christmas Eve dinner. In Don’s climactic meeting with these loud Italians, they are at first shocked into silence. But then someone orders in best “mange bene” style, “get the man a plate!”
Some valid criticisms have surfaced in reviews of the film, and it’s probably not perfect. But it’s one of the best vehicles for the message of incarnation anyone is likely to see this holiday season. How much we mean to each other.