Full transparency: I’ve not seen the majority of The Sopranos. I’ve seen plenty of episodes, and at least one full season, but only as it corresponded with my access to HBO at the time. I know who everyone is, but the full breadth of how they relate to one another as characters is not something I completely understand. I almost passed on The Many Saints of Newark for fear that it would be over the head of a casual fan like me, but as it turns out, my fears were unfounded. While I’m sure there are plenty of connections to The Sopranos that I didn’t even know to recognize, never once did I feel at a distance from the film. Its full richness may not reveal itself until I catch up on the remainder of the series, but it’s a hell of a stand-alone tale in its own right. It may even prove to function as an atypical entrance point for new fans.
Speaking of atypical entrance points, this unconventional prequel begins on a pretty bold choice. The camera moves through a graveyard, as the voices of the deceased tell stories from their lives. Eventually, we stop at the gravestone of Christopher Moltisanti, who narrates our tale from beyond the grave. Right off the bat he indicates that one day his own life will end at the hands of Tony Soprano, and through this doorway, we begin the story of Christopher’s father, and Tony’s biggest influence, Dickie Moltisanti (here’s where I note that ‘Moltisanti’ translates to ‘many saints’).
Played here by Alessandro Nivola, an actor who has been putting up incredible work for decades and is only now becoming a leading man, Dickie Moltisanti is a picture perfect representation of what we think of when we hear “gangster.” He’s not necessarily a bad guy, it’s just that his business often requires bad acts. He loves his family and is proud of his connections, but there is a struggle to keep everyone in his circle safe while maintaining the day-to-day responsibilities of his job. His nephew Tony (Michael Gandolfini) looks up to him in high esteem since his own father (Jon Bernthal) isn’t very caring (and is often very incarcerated). While we don’t spend a lot of time with Tony overall, and we really don’t start spending time with him until later in the film, there is an obvious parallel to the show here. The relationship between Tony and Dickie is quite similar to the one that eventually grows between Christopher and Tony in the series proper.
In making this parallel it’s obvious that David Chase (who wrote, but passed directing duties to Alan Taylor) is exploring the exact thematic material which gave the series finale such a divisive and compelling ending. Namely that, in a world dominated by criminals with a code of violence, double-crosses, and ego, the tragedy and trauma which occurs is cyclical. To quote another popular cinematic mobster “just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in!” While this quote is meant to specifically reference Michael Corleone’s circumstances in The Godfather: Part III, it’s also illustrative of the invisible forces within the organized crime world. It’s not that anyone is “pulled back in” so much as it’s that no one ever actually gets out. At least not without paying a huge physical toll.
Much like the show it prequelizes, The Many Saints of Newark is loose and relaxed, but has a chaotic vein running through it which suggests that anything could happen at any time and for any reason. In the case of this story, sudden bursts of violence happen pretty regularly, and always when it is least expected. And much like in the show, the reasons are often just as surprising (and sometimes, quite petty).
Chase smartly avoids the trappings of most prequels by avoiding a direct focus on the younger versions of the older characters we know and love. Yes, they’re all part of the tale, and yes, it’s fun to see them depicted as younger men and women, but there’s little by way of glaring Easter eggs or novelties. Instead of stacking “origin stories” as a decade of superhero cinema has us trained to expect, these younger versions of known characters are instead employed to get us thinking about their environment, and what their behaviors mean for Dickie in the present day of the film. That’s not to say there isn’t some fun to be had. Corey Stoll’s Junior Soprano is indeed sitting behind his iconic glasses, and young Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen) is exactly as funny and odd as he is at an advanced age, but neither are elevated beyond the supporting characters they’ve always been (a common failure of prequels is building a foundation under characters that were never designed to be leads in the first place). And even the visual notes that seem designed to make the audience chuckle are used to smartly inform character — it’s quite telling, in an Oedipal sense, that Livia Soprano, played here by a heavily made-up Vera Farmiga, has an uncanny resemblance to Carmela Soprano. The thoughtfulness applied to the look of the characters makes the somewhat drab look of the film at large easy to forgive. In fact, it makes sense for it to look the way it does, even if it’s not fully to my taste. If it were any more heightened it just wouldn’t feel like it exists in the same world as the show.
Across the board the performances hit their mark, with the prequelized versions of faces from the show feeling rather organic (so often prequel characters are cartoons – not the case here). The new characters (Dickie is mentioned in the show, but never seen) are all fully fleshed out and enjoyable to watch. Nivola and Gandolfini both sizzle, but it’s Ray Liotta playing — get ready — twin brothers, who steals the whole movie. He’s been a crime film standby ever since Goodfellas, and he puts in some of his career best work here. A supporting actor nod would not be surprising or undeserved.
The Sopranos fan or no, The Many Saints of Newark is accessible and successful. One could be entirely ignorant of the existing story and feel satisfied, while hardcore fans of the show are sure to be pleased. Prequelizing The Sopranos is a bad idea on paper, but Chase is a master, and this new chapter proves to be a welcome, if non-essential part of an American entertainment institution. An institution that many agree is one of the finest works of fiction ever created.
Directed by Alan Taylor