The Many Saints of Newark will either be a hit or miss for fans of The Sopranos
Screener provided by Universal Pictures
Words By Arnel Duracak
“…a prequel to the Tony Soprano story that many have long awaited, but one that may be divisive among audiences, depending on whether you’ve seen the show or not”
A couple of years ago, fans of the beloved, award-winning show Breaking Bad (2008-2013) were treated to a sequel of the show in the form of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019). Now over 14 years later, the equally celebrated show The Sopranos (1999-2007) has provided its fans with The Many Saints of Newark (2021). The film is a prequel to the Tony Soprano story that many have long awaited, but one that may be divisive among audiences, depending on whether you’ve seen the show or not.
In watching the show, audiences will most likely find their bearings relatively quickly in this late 60’s, early 70’s set New Jersey world, while those who haven’t (including yours truly) may find it more difficult to make sense of who’s who and what’s what (even with all the unsubtle exposition).
Like most mobster/mafia films from the last 40 years, the film revolves around themes pertaining to family, betrayal, loss and violence; It’s a world that is all too familiar and has been tried and dried much better in films before it (anything Scorsese’s related and Coppola related). That isn’t to say that there is no merit in exploring this period of time again, it just plays out like a film that was intended to be a show or at least could have worked better as a show.
Though a prequel to James Gandolfini’s iconic character Tony Soprano, the film is less about Tony (played in an almost uncanny fashion by his son Michael Gandolfini) and more about those around him. You have Salvatore Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), Giuseppina Moltisanti (Michela De Rossi), Livia Soprano (Vera Farmiga), and Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.). That’s not necessarily an issue had those around him been at least somewhat interesting in the film. But because of how overstuffed the narrative is, most of these characters feel like caricatures of mafia members.
Michael Gandolfini and Alessandro Nivola in The Many Saints of Newark
The most interesting character of the film is one that was absent from the show (by all accounts); Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) is the films lead, and the character who will guide us through a relatively jam packed two hours of storytelling. He is easily the most nuanced of the films characters and Nivola channels that Jersey accent and injects the character with a level of charisma that keeps him interesting enough for the films duration. Dickie is essentially Tony’s “uncle” who sports that charming but deceiving persona as he deals with his father Salvatore, a mistress (who his father had married before he was taken out), his own family, and the business he is embroiled in.
That business comes in the form of his former footman-turned-adversary Harold who is on the other side of this rusty mafia coin. Harold decides he no longer wants to be the mafia’s errand boy after witnessing a civil rights protest and violence occur following the arrest of (and possible death of) an African-American man. He instead chooses violence himself and murders one of the Soprano crew members — effectively spiralling the films focus towards retaliation and more violence.
For what it’s worth, the smoky Jersey setting, the melancholic tone and unfiltered acts of violence all bear a semblance to the show (given I have dropped in on an episode here and there over the years). However, in viewing the film from a relatively isolated experience (again, having not seen the show from start to finish), the familiar tropes and disjointed narrative (weaving in multiple storylines) leaves the film feeling like something that really is banking on nostalgia. David Chase no doubt wrote up one of the most widely celebrated shows of all time, but the characterisation here falls flat and would no doubt have worked better in a limited series format.
The Tony Soprano story is ultimately side-lined in The Many Saints of Newark, which opts instead to provide a more broad view on the sort of environment that would go on to shape Tony Soprano. The resulting film doesn’t give much in the way of a Tony Soprano backstory, but there are some moments and characters that fans of the show will just be glad they got to witness in the same way that Breaking Bad fans got to witness Jessie Pinkman’s exploits in the aftermath of that shows events.
The Many Saints of Newark opens nationally from the 4th of November 2021.
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