The Many Saints of Newark 3

The spirit of The Sopranos haunts The Many Saints of Newark

While not a perfect film, The Sopranos prequel stands up for this family.

There’s little doubt that fans of The Sopranos TV series are going to be as divided by its new prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, as they were over the show’s controversial, cut-to-black ending.

That said, there are different types of Sopranos fans, especially when the original series aired way back at the beginning of the 21st century. There were those who tuned in for the mob action, violence and trips to the Bada Bing, who got bored by the family stuff. Others were more invested in the drama of anti-hero protagonist Tony Soprano’s home life and trips to the psychiatrist’s office. 

I’m painting in very broad strokes with those two descriptions, but if there’s an obvious overlap between them, it would be that there was nothing else like The Sopranos on television before it came along, which is what hooked viewers to begin with. It’s easy to forget that in the age of prestige television. 

Another thing people stuck around for was the performances. And again, some people were more in it for Paulie Walnuts’ wingtips and wisecracks, or Bobby Bacala’s train set, while others were knocked out by Edie Falco’s portrayal of conflicted mob boss wife Carmela Soprano and Lorraine Braco’s turn as Tony’s shrink Dr. Melfi. 

It’s not an overstatement to suggest that with only a few exceptions, all of the performers on The Sopranos became their characters so fully that 15 years after the show ended, it is nearly impossible to think of the show’s cast in any other light, no matter how many other great roles they’ve played since. 

And nobody could take their eyes off the capo di tutti capi

Whatever your other reasons for watching The Sopranos, the late James Gandolfini’s starring run as Anthony Soprano is undeniably one of the small screen’s iconic performances, from episode one right up until lights-out at Holsten’s. 

But there is another breed of fan: people completely obsessed with The Sopranos. That would include me. I’ve rewatched the series more times than I’m comfortable admitting. I’ve devoured cast interviews, podcasts, books and fan theories fervently. If there were a Sopran-Os cereal, I’d eat a bowl right now. And as I suspected would be the case, this film was made with us in mind. 

Billy Magnussen, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, John Magaro, Ray Liotta, Alessandro Nivola

I’ve been impatiently waiting for The Many Saints of Newark to hit screens since the project was announced, as though Quasimodo himself had predicted it. A big part of my impatience came from a belief that with series creator David Chase at the helm, the prequel would be done well. But I still had misgivings about whether it could be done right.

My concern was principally that the line between foreshadowing and fan service would be difficult to navigate in a culture obsessed both with modern mythical origin stories and the fan-pleasing Easter eggs they inevitably invite. 

The news that Gandolfini’s son Michael would take on the role of an adolescent Tony Soprano, however, was not as much a part of those fears as it seems to have been for others. I’d watched Gandolfini-the-younger’s performance in a minor role on David Simon’s series The Deuce for almost two seasons before I noticed his name fly by in the credits and clocked exactly who he was. 

The realization came as a pleasant surprise, not because it changed the way I looked at him, but precisely because his low-key performance as the son of stalwart TV actor Chris Bauer’s massage-parlour-managing, underworld-hangaround family man stood convincingly on its own as a testament to the younger Gandolfini’s acting skills, believable and understated amIdst The Deuce’s powerful ensemble cast.

So it didn’t feel like he was being shoehorned into his father’s considerable Gucci loafers, as some fans worried. Yes, he looks and sounds like his father. I look and sound like my dad, too, but nobody would hire me as vice-president of an insurance company based on that. 

David Chase notoriously made seasoned actors like Steve Buscemi and David Proval (along with half the cast of Goodfellas) audition for their roles on The Sopranos, let alone the lesser known talents he recruited along the way. I never feared that his intentions in this casting choice were strictly for show, and I’m pleased to say that translates to the film. 

But despite the trailers for Many Saints playing up the Tony Soprano origin story (a studio decision, to be sure), Gandolfini-as-young-Tony’s story is a B-plot to the film’s main narrative, and that’s where the real Sopranos mythological backstory kicks into high gear. The film centres on a character that loomed large over the series’ six seasons but was murdered long before audiences welcomed the Soprano family of late-’90s North Jersey into their homes. 

We meet Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father of future-Tony’s drug-addled protege Christopher (Micheal Imperioli, who reprises his tragic role, off-screen, to narrate the film from beyond the grave) shortly before the 1967 Newark riots. 

A soldier in the DiMeo crime family, Dickie is having professional problems with an associate outside the family, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a numbers runner responsible for collecting bets from the Black community in Newark. McBrayer’s having a hard time avoiding being ripped off by street gangs and Dickie is losing patience quickly. 

On the home front, Dickie’s father, “Hollywood” Dick Moltisanti, played somewhat hamfistedly by Ray Liotta (who doubles down with a second, more subdued role as Dickie’s imprisoned Uncle Sal) returns from a trip to Italy with a new, much younger bride, Giuseppina, a scene-stealing performance  from newcomer to American cinema Michela De Rossi.

Troubles begin to brew between the new couple while, simultaneously, things start to boil over with Harold, and by the time riots erupt on the streets of Newark, the tension surrounding Dickie also begins to get explosive.

Complicating matters even further, Giuseppina is making advances on him. And meanwhile, he and his wife can’t seem to procreate. 

Through it all, though, his nephew Tony (played in the first act by an even younger talent, William Ludwig) idolizes him, and Dickie, still without a son of his own, loves him in kind. Throughout The Sopranos, Tony recalled his uncle fondly as a “stand up guy” and made no secret that he paid that love forward as a father figure to Christopher. 

Series regulars Corrado “Junior” Soprano, Big Pussy, Silvio Paulie Walnuts and Tony’s father Johnny Boy are, logically, all players in this prequel, but not to the extent one may assume. I’ll leave subjective evaluations of these younger interpretations of classic characters to other reviewers and more importantly, to the viewers. The actors have some fun.

But by and large, they’re given the dignity to do what little they have to do without becoming caricatures. Cringe-worthy fan service is mostly off the table, but so is any added depth to their history. One exception in that regard is Junior (House Of Cards’ Corey Stoll), who was admittedly a caricature — albeit a dangerous one — as an oldtimer in the series. His storyline is important to the movie’s arc but is also unfortunately rushed and somewhat superficial, despite a solid performance from Stoll. 

As we jump forward in time to the mid-’70s to a teenage Tony, whose father is away on a five-year prison bid, we get to spend more time with another central figure from the show: the narcissistic, borderline mother figure of Livia, brought back to life here by an incredibly well-cast Vera Farmiga. Her presence in the film, like Junior’s, is sadly inconsistent. She’s a great character played by a great actress that could probably carry her own prequel film just fine by herself. 

However, one of the strengths of Chase’s storytelling vision on the show was always to assume viewers were intelligent enough to understand that, as in real life, things happen in the background of every person’s existence that we don’t have to witness firsthand in order to understand their impact. 

For example, the show never had to justify Tony sitting in treatment for five more years after Livia’s sudden death. But we do get a better glimpse of her control over young Tony’s emotions and self-esteem through her love-bombing, devaluation and manipulation. In terms of rich backstories mined to good effect in Many Saints, this particular relationship is the winner, and no one would be unjustified in leaving the film wishing there had been a little more. 

I get the all-around sense that the film was edited for time, and as such, a longer cut could well and deservedly be in the cards.  That still won’t do much to offset the film’s most awkward segue, which involves Livia’s beehive and a long-whispered-about car ride home from the Copa. 

And if there’s any singular character that feels like he just doesn’t fit in, it’s Jon Bernthal’s emasculated, frustrated Johnny Soprano.

But the film’s biggest weakness is a failure to reconcile the racial tensions of New Jersey’s past with the story it builds around them. A recurring theme on The Sopranos was the racial intolerance of American society at large and in the Italian criminal underworld in particular. The tone of the show was critical of its characters’ prejudices, even though they themselves lacked any self-awareness in terms of their hypocritical worldviews. I’d have thought the film would dig a little deeper, particularly since the Dickie/Howard story is the major mob storyline of the film. Here again, the movie misses a few beats. 

At the same time, we can rightly assume these guys were as racist and indifferent then as they were in the future. But I expected Chase to explore that era of New Jersey’s history with a little more insight, particularly since he grew up in the thick of it and never played with themes of race simply for cheap thrills.

The Many Saints of Newark Michael Gandolfini Tony Soprano
Michael Gandolfini (left) as Tony Soprano, with Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti

It’s difficult to assess how entertaining this film will be to anyone who only casually watched the series. If the central crime story were a little stronger, it might better manage to keep Soprano rookies invested. My guess is that viewers unfamiliar with the TV show will be at best only passively interested in the family dynamics, despite mostly great acting across the board. 

As for a big screen experience, it’s not without merit — especially with series regular Alan Taylor in the director’s chair — but aside from an occasional landscape scene or gunfight, it’s hardly a must-see-in-theatre offer, other than the chance it allows to have a communal experience with fellow fans. 

It’s been said that The Sopranos taught audiences how to experience the story as it unfolded. There are many reasons why I’ve returned to the show so many times. The drama, the comedy, the writing and the acting certainly rank high among those reasons. But the depth and psychology of the show’s symbolism, mirror imagery and self-analysis are why repeat views have always left me again anticipating a future rewatch. 

I discover new connections between the characters and their circumstances each time I revisit that world, and I’m happy to say I now look forward to further understanding The Many Saints of Newark. To say any more about why would mean entering both deep spoiler territory and nerdly minutiae, but characters like Giuseppina and Uncle Sal stand in as complex avatars for themes of culture and morality, and a single viewing only scratches the surface of what those types of subtleties suggest. 

Suffice to say that if you’ve watched The Sopranos closely and understood its intrinsic symmetry, The Many Saints of Newark and its travel back through time will reward your intellect and your appreciation for the richness of the world David Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner have here pre-dated. 

And if not… ah, fuggedaboutit. ■

The Many Saints of Newark opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 1

The Many Saints of Newark, directed by Alan Taylor

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