film review: The Many Saints of Newark
Review Overview Direction 7/10 Cast 9/10 Storytelling Rating 8/10 David Chase’s prequel looks back at Tony Soprano’s formative years but keeps the mystery of his personality intact.
Reading time: 5 mins
Director: Alan Taylor Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr, Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta Certificate: 15
If you’re a Sopranos obsessive, you’ll know all about the legend of Dickie Moltisanti, Christopher Moltisanti’s deceased father. Characters in the iconic HBO series speak about him with great affection, God rest his soul. In this prequel movie, we finally get to see Dickie brought to life on the screen and see for ourselves why Tony loved him so much and what led to Dickie being clipped by a hitman one night in the run up to Christmas. Christopher grew up believing his father was gunned down by a corrupt copper, but here we learn the truth was much closer to home.
Those expecting to uncover definitive answers as to why Tony Soprano developed sociopathic-like tendencies, well, creator David Chase isn’t so much interested in providing concrete explanations, but he does craft acute observations regarding events and relationship dynamics, the two most important ones being with Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) and his mother Livia (Vera Farmiga). On its theatrical release, more than a few people found this noncommittal stance frustrating, as if Tony Soprano’s background was an origins story akin to Darth Vader’s in the Star Wars prequels. George Lucas dealt in mythology, David Chase dealt with a recognisable world and people.
Tony Soprano’s ultimate diagnosis remains fittingly a mystery and expectations were therefore frustrated. Providing unambiguous reasons for things would take away the many complex layers at work in the storytelling, but also in the rich characterisations. It might dissatisfy armchair Freuds, but it works beautifully as messy human drama. Tony could be a swell guy one second and a monster the next. It is that Jekyll and Hyde persona that made him so captivating and what made the late James Gandolfini’s performance frankly one of the greatest in the history of acting. The film, co-written with Lawrence Konner, begins with a nod to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Told in flashback and narrated by Christopher from beyond the grave (Michael Imperioli, back making a voice cameo), the camera moves past various headstones, we hear the voices of the dead and snippets of their personal biographies, they fade in and out. The camera rests at Christopher’s plot and so begins this latest Sopranos yarn, titled The Many Saints of Newark (2021), a pun on the surname “Moltisanti”.
Directed by journeyman Alan Taylor, it lacks camera razzle-dazzle and Scorsese brashness, but its visual understated style fits in tonally with the preceding HBO series, and where the film’s excellence lies is to be found in the script and the acting. Nivola is suave and charismatic as Dickie, while Michael Gandolfini as teenaged Tony is the spitting image of his old man and holds his own around the more seasoned actors and actresses. It’s Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano and Farmiga as Livia Soprano, though, who prove the standouts in the supporting roles.
Stoll’s Uncle June is an absolute weasel and Farmiga has a great time portraying a hurricane of hurt and frustration, the unstable mobster’s wife who puts up with a lot but hardly helps herself either. Livia was a harridan in the series, always goading Tony, playing him off against older sister Janice, belittling him, but the film makes clear enough she’s mentally ill but nobody has time for her or her woes, because there’s no frame of reference and little compassion. It’s also worth pointing out that Chase had Farmiga wear a prosthetic nose, to give her a vague resemblance to Tony’s future wife Carmela (Edie Falco). Here is yet another hint offered by Chase as to Tony’s twisted psychological makeup. The comic inference is he married a woman who looked a bit like his own mum. It’s sick but fascinating. The shocking revelation of Dickie’s demise might seem petty, astonishingly so, but it goes back to a core truism regarding Italians being world-leading experts at holding a grudge, and a slight is never forgotten. It might seem bizarre to outsiders, but nevertheless it is accurate. In other words, emotional volatility is an Italian trait. There is a potent strain of sentimentality in the Italian mindset, too. Chase’s imaginative depiction of an Italian-American gangster’s life earned acclaim because he dared to examine this powerful dichotomy in microscopic detail and laid it out unromanticised. Chase latched onto the vulnerability mixed with machismo, explaining both can exist, hold the same weight, that even a feared capo had 99 problems, that not even Tony Soprano was born a monster. The same themes are present in The Many Saints of Newark, this time in the context of Dickie’s tragic life as a crime family member. Dickie, like Tony, possessed a deep sensitivity and festering wounds related to his father’s behaviour and conduct.
Tony, many years later, sort to recreate the close bond he shared with Dickie via Christopher. Not that it did either of them any good. “This is the man I went to hell for,” Dickie’s son says over the film’s closing shot of Tony standing beside the casket of his beloved substitute father figure, which, in its own way, echoes the show’s ambiguous finale. Christopher’s words are bitter, but strangely accepting of his fate. But is it also Chase’s sly way of letting us know T is still alive? Of course, it doesn’t explicitly say, and we’re in the realms of fan theory and wild conjecture, just like The Sopranos’ ending never spelled out if Tony was whacked in the diner or he finished his family get-together and went home and lived mafia ever after. If there is a hell, Tony Soprano would definitely be there too, and likely tormenting Christopher for all eternity. But the “I went to hell…” It doesn’t say Tony is rotting there, does it?