There’s a bit of verbal irony in the name The Many Saints of Newark, the title of the prequel to The Sopranos, one of the most groundbreaking, revered dramas in television history.
Turns out there are actually very few saints in the grim but still bustling pocket of mob-run Jersey circa the late 1960s and ’70s imagined for the screen by Sopranos mastermind David Chase, Sopranos writer Lawrence Konner, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Alan Taylor, director of the film and multiple episodes of the HBO series that inspired it. Practically everyone in this movie has a moral compass that’s gone kablooey or will in the near future. That’s especially true of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a character who never appeared in the HBO series but, according to this new chapter in the Sopranos saga, had a major influence on its central figure. (The title of the movie also works as double entendre: in Italian, many saints is “molti santi.”)
While this Sopranos prequel functions as a Tony Soprano origin story of sorts — even the movie poster asks, “Who made Tony Soprano?” — its protagonist is actually Dickie, a loyal member of the Soprano crew, semi-present father, and a less than faithful husband who is nevertheless admired by a young Tony, portrayed as a boy by William Ludwig and as a teen by Michael Gandolfini, son of the definitive Tony Soprano, the late, magnificent James Gandolfini. Even Tony’s mother Livia (an appropriately cantankerous Vera Farmiga sporting a prosthetically enhanced nose) looks at Dickie through glasses the color of the pinkest rose.
As the movie progresses, Dickie engages in increasingly heinous behavior — this Sopranos spin-off has lost none of the show’s willingness to display violence at its most brutal — while simultaneously reckoning with his anxiety and guilt. In other words, Dickie’s experience semi-mirrors the psychological journey that a grown-up Tony will embark on decades later, prompted by that famous family of panic-inducing ducks in his backyard swimming pool. With results that range from the predictable to the semi-profound, Dickie’s story also aims to enhance our understanding of the values that Tony emulated, absorbed and acted upon until The Sopranos’ final, controversial cut-to-black.
Theoretically a person could view The Many Saints of Newark, in theaters and on HBO Max Friday, without having seen The Sopranos, but I can’t imagine why anyone would. The basic plot is easy enough to follow, but the ability to notice connections between the two, along with the joy of recognizing the younger versions of familiar characters — the film is remarkably well cast — would be lost on the Bada Bing! deprived. And those are two of the central pleasures this movie provides.
When considered purely on terms that aren’t informed by its predecessor, Many Saints is a much thinner experience. Without six seasons of premium cable TV to add context, it plays out like a reasonably well-executed but not particularly inspired mob movie reminiscent of other mob movies you’ve probably seen before, and with an antihero in Dickie who lacks the depth and surprise that James Gandolfini’s Tony possessed in abundance.
The female characters lack the nuance and richness afforded to the men, which is unfortunate given how complicated the women in the series were. Here, they’re too often boxed into nagging wife or hot mistress roles, Livia being the closest to an exception. The movie also begins on an awkward note by panning through a graveyard, where the voices of the dead can be heard as the camera passes each of their tombstones, until it pauses on the one that belongs to Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), son of Dickie and so-called “nephew” of Tony, as he begins to narrate the flashback that constitutes the rest of the film. That narration does not always seem vital, though it does pay off in pretty spectacular fashion in the final scene.
What is most thought-provoking about The Many Saints of Newark is what it says about mythologizing the past. In the opening moments of The Sopranos pilot, Tony tells his therapist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) that he fears “the best is over” in terms of what’s possible in American life and that his father “had it better” in many ways. In this movie, Chase and Konner place us back in that supposedly better America. After all these years of being badgered about whether Tony lived or died following the jarring, vague conclusion of his series, Chase has responded by telling us what happened before rather than what happens next.
Immediately, the film shows us that Tony’s idealizations are a lie. Opening in 1967, the movie captures a Newark soon set ablaze by racial protests that are inspired by actual events of the time. We are introduced to Harold McBrayer (a charismatic Leslie Odom, Jr.), who played high school football with Dickie and now works as a numbers runner for him, but realizes he can’t rise much higher in an organization filled with blatantly racist white men. Early in the movie, Tony’s father, Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal) is busted in a gambling raid and sent to prison for several years; when he gets out, he moves his family to the suburbs, already fleeing from the city that hasn’t fully declined but is heading in that direction. Even some of the narration plays like a scene from the most fucked-up episode ever of The Wonder Years. “That little fat kid is my Uncle Tony Soprano,” Christopher announces via voice-over as the camera settles on Ludwig’s Tony. “He choked me to death. But that was much later.”
In their own nostalgic way, fans of The Sopranos may look at The Many Saints of Newark for reminders of the series they used to love. The faint outlines are there. You can see them in the face of Michael Gandolfini, who does an admirable job of assuming the role his father made famous, and also looks so much like his dad that it makes your heart ache. You find it in the way that the film contrasts life’s darkness with normalcy and light, a trademark of the series. (A disturbing moment that plays out on a beach and is photographed in glowing light, with round light flares speckled across the frame, absolutely could have been in a Sopranos episode.) You see it in every acting choice that echoes the mannerisms of the mafiosos that we let into our living rooms regularly in the beginning of the 21st century.
But in its subtext, this movie tells us that nothing is as good as you might hope. That’s true of the era that Tony would later, wrongly, glorify. And it’s true of a movie that is fascinating to study and consider, but not nearly as good as the television series that made us wish for this movie to exist.