It is fitting that a film that takes place in the world of The Sopranos, where death is never far from any character’s mind, begins in a graveyard. The camera bears eerie resemblance to a ghost in the way it floats ever so slowly around various tombstones. Fading in and out are voices from beyond the grave—the people in the ground telling their stories. Eventually, we settle on the grave of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), a name that will be familiar to anyone who watched the series that is thought to have launched the “golden era of TV.”
The existence of this tombstone, as well as the circumstances around Christopher’s death (which he immediately reveals in his narration), constitute major spoilers for The Sopranos. And perhaps therein lies the central tension of The Many Saints of Newark, the new prequel movie for the series: how does one make a film that caters to both superfans of the show and to those for whom the words “marone” and “gabagool” are next to meaningless—that is, people who have never previously entered the world of Tony, Carmela, and the rest? It is a tension that, despite the best efforts of all those involved, the film is never able to resolve.
Christopher’s narration launches the film back into the rollicking world of Newark, New Jersey in the 1960s, when the power and prestige of the mafia were still on the rise. This is the time before the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, before the federal government decided to devote itself to curbing organized crime. The focal point of The Many Saints is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Christopher’s father, a legendary name from the series who died long before it began.
The film is paced and plotted much like a season of The Sopranos, where moments of significant action are few and far between, but occur with sudden, startling vigor when they do come—a pacing that presumably represents the reality of life in the mob. It is not that violence is unceasing, but rather that the threat of violence continually looms. A stroll on the beach could end with a dead body floating in the ocean. A quiet dinner could end in a hail of bullets flying in every which direction. Rivals lurk about, waiting for a moment of weakness to pounce.
In The Many Saints, Dickie’s rival of note is Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), who starts as a functionary in the DiMeo crime family before various circumstances—not least of which are the 1967 Newark race riots and Harold’s consequent racial radicalization—lead him to launch his own Black gang to rival Dickie’s (white) Italian one.
From this premise one can easily envision a different (and perhaps more successful) kind of film than the one that *Sopranos* creator and writer David Chase and director Alan Taylor produce, one in which the complex issue of racial relations in America is explored through the lens of organized crime. This would indeed be a welcome addition to the Sopranos universe, which largely ignored the issue of race aside from a few clumsy subplots. Alas, this ostensibly central conflict of the film takes the back burner, functioning as but one narrative strand among many. Perhaps this would be effective in television format, adding layers to the world over many episodes and seasons. In a film, however, this plot comes off as muddled.
More than developing a narrative, The Many Saints attempts to build up its characters, especially Dickie. The performance by Nivola is a true powerhouse, equal parts charisma and brutality. He nails the tricky balancing act between living up to the legend built up in the show while also making the character feel like a real person with complexities and flaws. The visual elements of Dickie contrast with Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini)—Dickie is stylish and fit, while Tony is slobby and plump. We never see Dickie with his head buried in the fridge, whereas in The Sopranos we are treated to Tony gorging himself in his bathrobe at least once an episode. In spite of these surface differences, there is clever mirroring between the two characters in the way that they continually rationalize their iniquities and convince themselves of their own victimhood. Chase’s emphasis on the cyclicality of criminality and mob life is easily the most successful aspect of the film—the sole element in which the enthralling magic of The Sopranos is captured, however briefly.
The genius of The Sopranos, however, was not its ability to develop its protagonist as much as its ability to make every character complex. It is in this way that The Many Saints fails spectacularly, almost to the point of making it painful to watch. Characters from the show such as Paulie (Billy Magnussen), Silvio (John Magaro), and Tony’s mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga), all make appearances, but rather than deepening these characters by filling in their backstories, the performances function as crude caricatures. Each actor is trying their best to imitate the actor from the show, hamming up their tics and facial expressions in a manner that is nothing but grating. This is yet another instance in which Chase brushes up against the constraints of the medium, trying to fit a television technique into the much more constricting box of cinema. There is simply not enough time in a film to make such a broad array of characters feel alive. The one notable exception is the young Tony Soprano himself, played by Michael Gandolfini, the son of James Gandolfini (who played Tony during the show’s run). Perhaps it is the familial relation, but Gandolfini’s performance feels authentic to the character without devolving into caricature.
Despite all my criticism, The Many Saints of Newark is unquestionably a more-than-competently made film. The direction is intelligent, and the cinematography is unflashy and effective, much like the cinematography of the show itself. The performances that are not burdened by the show’s legacy are well put together. Ultimately, however, the film is overwhelmed by the immense shadow of its predecessor. The numerous times that The Many Saints reaches out for the magic of The Sopranos only serve to remind the viewer of that magic, and emphasize the fact that this ain’t it, that maybe they would have been better off just flicking on The Sopranos instead.