Review by Jonathan W. Hickman
You don’t have to be intimately acquainted with “The Sopranos” to understand and enjoy “The Many Saints of Newark.”
Most viewers are schooled in the familiar elements of the mobster genre, which is ingrained in our cinematic psyche. But a little “Sopranos” knowledge sure helps.
“Saints” is a prequel to the award-winning HBO series that ran for six seasons ending in 2007. The show revolved around a suburban mob boss named Tony Soprano. The late actor James Gandolfini inhabited Tony. It was his acting brilliance that carefully crafted the character into a television icon.
As Tony, Gandolfini made an imposing screen presence. Not only was he physically a large and intimidating man, but he made an engaging impression with his uncanny ability to shift from fearsome killer to sensitive everyman often in the same episode. Part of this was the genius of show creator David Chase. He made expert use of mental health counseling as a story device to reveal all of Tony’s insecurities behind the private wall of psychiatry.
With each visit to his counselor, Dr. Melfi (a perfect Lorraine Bracco), the viewer came to understand Tony. Viewers related to this man not because they shared his criminal proclivities but because most people struggle with the same difficult mundanities of everyday life. Hidden beneath Tony’s monstrous exterior was creeping depression that sometimes overmastered his dangerous tendencies. He could do the right thing, and the slim chance that he would do something good kept viewers glued to each installment.
So, in the mobster, the killer, wedged within the omnipresent bloody awfulness lurked a human being begging to be rid of the terrible life of a criminal. Of course, Tony was in way too deep to ever turn his back on the crime family that made him. Redemption had to come within the criminal organization that could at any random moment destroy everything clean in his life, take his wife, ruin or kill his two innocent children. Tony was a monster, but he was also a loving father, a flawed husband, and ironically a pillar of his community.
“Saints” provides the early portion of Tony’s criminal origin. The remarkable thing about the film is that, like the series, you can’t help but root for Tony, even though we know that he’s a future devil. We know this in the movie because in an opening voice-over from beyond the grave, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) reminds us that Tony will become an unredeemable murderer.
The film takes place in Newark, New Jersey, mostly in 1967. The town is racially divided. The streets are, at times, riotous, as African Americans protest disparate treatment. We see the bright glow of entire city blocks engulfed in fire as anger rages uncontrolled.
During this tumultuous time, mid-level boss Dickie Moltisanti (an impressive Alessandro Nivola) runs an illegal gambling enterprise. He inherited the business, and Dickie proves to be a better criminal than his father, Hollywood Dick Moltisanti (an inspired, possibly award-worthy Ray Liotta).
We meet Hollywood when he returns from a trip to the old country with a pretty young wife named Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) uncomfortably dangling from his wrinkled arm. Liotta plays Hollywood as a disgusting bore, always shouting a stream of meaningless insults over a steaming plate of pasta. To Dickie, his father is a cliché, an embarrassment, a crude joke that he tolerates but could live without. And when his father moves into Dickie’s duplex, the old deleterious habits, like spousal abuse, vividly return.
Meanwhile, a teenaged Tony (played by Gandolfini’s real-life son Michael) copes with problems at home. Tony’s father, Johnny (Jon Bernthal), works for Dickie and isn’t very present in his boy’s life. Tony’s overbearing mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga), barely has a relationship with Johnny, as she survives her husband’s frequent visits to prison.
Tony idolizes his flashy, wise uncle Dickie. And initially, Dickie, who doesn’t yet have a son of his own, embraces this connection. But as the crime business becomes more complex and dangerous, Dickie turns his back on the boy, who is hurt by the rejection. As Dickie explains, while receiving advice from a murderer he visits in prison, he wants to do a good thing.
It’s these moments in a prison visitation room that mirror Tony’s appointments with Dr. Melfi in the television series. The idea, I think, is that he’s searching for some equilibrium amid all the villainy. These are some of the film’s finest moments.
As the story progresses, Dickie’s business is almost always on the edge of collapsing. Whether it is the long arm of the law or competition from his right-hand man and former high school football teammate Harold (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Dickie engages in a delicate balancing act. Often the only solution is a violent one.
If there is one major limitation to “Saints,” it is the need to reference the series. This fan service is a blessing and a curse because it prevents the film from completely being its own thing. Characters from the show appear in the movie as younger versions. And because there is a six-season shorthand, little effort is made to develop and explain who these people are; name-dropping is all that’s provided. If you’ve never seen “The Sopranos,” these nods to the series may either go unnoticed or be distracting. But the subtle box-checking is arguably a necessary evil because “Saints” is a prequel, after all.
At the heart of the movie is Nivola’s affecting performance as the conflicted boss. Dickie’s last name Moltisanti means “many saints” in Italian. And there is a sequence in which Dickie imagines himself coaching a baseball team for blind children in which the parents surround him, calling him a “saint.” While this memory might be something that happened to Dickie, I took the presentation of it as an idealized version. Like Tony, Dickie believes that in him somewhere is a good person, but real-world flaws constantly threaten the fantasy of that other life. He’s a ruined man that can only work from within a corrupt organization in hopes of doing something better.
The perfect casting of Jon Bernthal and Corey Stoll as brothers Johnny and Junior Soprano is a masterstroke. Not only are the two actors brothers-from-another-mother, but they are talented enough to give very distinct performances that lay the groundwork for Dominic Chianese’s wormy turn as Junior in the series. The transition from Stoll to Chianese and vice versa is seamless without being a parody or mere mimicry.
Michael Gandolfini adopts Tony’s posture and mannerisms respectfully, reflecting a commitment to honoring his father’s legacy. The decision to use Michael isn’t stunt casting, Michael is a capable actor, and even though the film isn’t focused on him, there is enough to build upon if Chase decides to continue with another outing.
And another “Sopranos” prequel movie wouldn’t have to concentrate on Tony exclusively. Leslie Odom, Jr.’s decisive turn as Harold McBrayer is intriguing and is worthy of a standalone narrative. Race riots, the beginnings of the Vietnam War, and the growing divide between the Italian crime families and African American criminal organizations are all teased effectively. When “Saints” ends, an explosive conflict is on the horizon.
It’s the ending of “Saints” that seems incomplete. Story threads are left unresolved because, naturally, they are continued years later in the television series. And this is where viewers unfamiliar with the show will potentially be frustrated. It beckons viewers to watch or rewatch “The Sopranos.”
“The Many Saints of Newark” is a must for fans, but non-fans will find it to be a handsome addition to the mobster genre.