Film Review – The Many Saints of Newark
The Many Saints of Newark
Fourteen years after The Sopranos ended its legendary run on television, writer/creator David Chase returns to the world of the New Jersey mob with The Many Saints of Newark (2021). Cowritten by Chase and Lawrence Konner – with long time Sopranos director Alan Taylor at the helm – the film takes place in the late 1960s into the ‘70s. Centered around the Soprano crew, the story sets up many of the pieces that we will recognize later down the line. Given that this is a prequel to an already popular show, it begs the question: “Does this provide anything new that we didn’t already know?”
The answer is…not really. Advertisements would have us believe that we would learn how a young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini, inhereting the role made famous by his late father, James) rose up the ranks to become the boss of Jersey, following a similar arc to Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather (1972). In actuality, Tony is a peripheral character, pushed to the sidelines as an outsider looking in. The main player is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), soldier for the Soprano crew and future father of show character Christopher (Michael Imperioli). We learn of Dickie’s tenuous balance between his home life, the business, and the relationship he has with Tony.
In terms of art direction, make up, and costuming, the film has a glossy aesthetic. The sets and props all recall the period gorgeously. Because the story takes place during the turbulent years of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, we get several instances where the outer world comes barging through the enclosed circle of organized crime. Early on, we see characters driving along only to run right into the middle of a protest or riot. Simply looking out of the front door will give a view of the city burning under civil unrest.
While the visuals are composed well, the writing and direction tries too hard to juggle multiple elements. This is strange, given that the show excelled in these areas. The fact that we know where a lot of these components end up at the start of The Sopranos, the production is burdened with having to organize everything into a familiar shape while telling a unique story. We must be reminded of Tony’s strained relationship with his mother Livia (Vera Farmiga) and father Johnny (Jon Bernthal). On Dickie’s side, we watch his partnership with a local black crew – headed by Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) – deteriorate into a rivalry. Dickie tries to make amends with his imprisoned uncle (Ray Liotta) as well as keeping his lover Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) happy. All the while, the impressionable Tony always gravitates toward Dickie, looking up to him as a source of guidance and influence.
This is a lot of stuff to take in, and I only went through that long explanation to point out that this would probably have worked better as a limited series. There are just too many different things happening at the same time. The pacing is so quick that nothing really gets a chance to breathe and develop. The size and scope feel small – we don’t get a sense of how the differing crews operate or how their personal lives fell apart. In one scene, Livia is called to Tony’s school to speak with a counselor about his misbehavior. Despite both Vera Farmiga and Michael Gandolfini delivering convincing performances, the rhythm of the scene is awkward. This is an instance where Tony is on the precipice of either going straight or falling into a life of crime, but the scene is not given the weight of importance.
The same thing applies to Dickie. Alessandro Nivola is very good as the character. He looks and sounds the part convincingly. When he interacts with Tony is when the narrative works the best. Dickie doesn’t want to be a father figure to Tony – he understands that his actions contradict the advice he gives him. Dickie wants to do the right thing, but what is the right thing when your life revolves around breaking the law? His conversations with his uncle are reminiscent of the therapy scenes of the show but doesn’t work nearly as well. They’re simply not given enough time to resonate. Dickie is a tragic character, running in circles trying to keep everything together. The problem is that there isn’t a growing level of suspense surrounding him. There’s plenty of opportunity for tension building, but there’s no payoff. The conflicts of his life seem to go nowhere. Maybe that is what the writing and direction was going for, but it doesn’t play out convincingly enough. Everything just kind of ends up hanging in the air.
Diehard fans of the The Sopranos will probably enjoy The Many Saints of Newark the most. There are plenty of references and call backs that will delight them, and I’m sure some will get a kick at watching actors trying their hand at characters we already know. But as whole, the film doesn’t provide major contributions to this world. It acts as a nice tribute to a pop cultural phenomenon but not much more than that.