Warning: This review will contain spoilers for both The Sopranos and its prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark.
There is one single moment in the HBO Original film Many Saints of Newark which matched the quality of The Sopranos, the series which laid the foundation for it more than 20 years ago. This moment, coming in at around the 80 minute mark, depicts both the current matriarch of the Sopranos family, Livia Soprano, and her son — future patriarch and lead protagonist of the original show, Tony Soprano — sharing a meal together, burgers handmade by Livia herself.
Many Saints begins as idyllically as one might hope, but (as any fan of the show would have seen coming) when Livia brings up, and consummately rejects, her doctor’s recommendation of the antidepressant Elavil, this peace departs as quickly as it had come.
When Tony, who eventually would go onto use antidepressants himself, suggests that his mother might benefit from the drug, she immediately shuts him down, launching into one of her character’s classic tirades, blaming her depression on Tony, her husband Johnny, her doctor, the medical profession and every single person besides herself. In response, Tony, ever the loyal son, only hangs his head over his burger in repressed shame.
Even without the context of the original show, the scene works beautifully, especially aided by stellar performances from both Vera Farmiga as Livia and Michael Gandolfini (son of the original Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini) as Tony. The sense of embittered sorrow is palpable in both characters, Livia burdened by her house and home (as well as her fraught mental state), and Tony burdened by Livia.
Yet, within the context of The Sopranos, the scene becomes even more tragic. In the original show, one can count on a single hand the number of positive, loving interactions between Livia and her son (namely, zero), and this rare glimpse of that idealized relationship, beautiful though it is, is crushed just as it appears.
Even more ironically, what crushes it is not simply the relationship between the two characters, but the subject of mental illness and psychiatric treatment, the very same subject which would wreak havoc all throughout the original show.
For all its hilarious side characters, brutal violence, and Byzantine parasocial relationships, The Sopranos always was, among other things, a story about depression, anxiety, mental illness, and repression. As such, this little snapshot between Livia and Tony becomes a chasm for the viewer, a terribly evocative “what-if” moment: What if Livia had just gotten the help she needed?
This thematic conversation between old and new is something which only the very best reboots, prequels and belated sequels manage successfully. 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return comes to mind, a sequel series which managed to simultaneously extract the essence of its original show while simultaneously imparting new ideas, themes, and concepts onto the viewer.
To a lesser extent, and especially in the context of Many Saints, one cannot help but recall 2019’s El Camino, a sequel film to Breaking Bad. While El Camino certainly did not go to the experimental lengths of The Return, it certainly captured the ethos of its original show.
Both are good examples of original creators returning to older works and making something new (or at least enjoyable, in the case of El Camino) out of them, and while this article would love to sing the same praises for The Many Saints of Newark, it just cannot.
As much as it pains this journalist to admit it, Many Saints feels like a thin, watered-down version of what made the original show so tremendous, a decent crime film with only a thin veneer of the psychological underpinnings and thematic complexities that absolutely dominated The Sopranos.
The adventure of Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti in the city of Newark, both as his own man and, later, as a parallel to Tony Soprano, never quite coheres, either as a standalone drama or as a straight prequel to The Sopranos.
It is frustrating to see, especially when the film flirts, occasionally, with the deeper themes of the original show, yet one cannot escape the sense that the film never quite knows what it wants to be, nor how it wants to connect to the original series.
To the credit of Many Saints, it starts off strong, perhaps because of its isolation from the original show. It begins with Dickie Moltisanti, father of the show’s Christopher Moltisanti and namesake of the film (Moltisanti means, in Italian, many saints), meeting his own father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (played with a wonderful hateability by the fantastic Ray Liotta) at a port in Newark, with the latter’s newfound Italian wife, Giuseppina.
At this point in the film, 1967, Tony Soprano is little more than a child, and it is this first half of the film, involved almost exclusively in the story of Dickie Moltisanti, where it is at its best.
Unrestrained by continuity, the first hour of Many Saints gives its viewers a version of Newark, New Jersey, as seductive and lively as it is foreboding. The dirty, neon-lit streets and backrooms, such as the offices of The Sopranos staple pork store Satriale’s, glow in a way that the original show never did, helped along by a twenty-year progression in film technology.
Although the Sopranos influence is felt in name references, locations and even the occasional remade scene, this first hour feels like its own beast.
Dickie Moltisanti, himself a rising star in the DiMeo crime family, and played by the charismatically brusque Alessandro Nivola, charms his audience right off the bat. He seems, relatively speaking, a paragon of virtue, not only contrasting heavily against his abusive father, who regularly beats his Giuseppina, but also against his racist mafioso associates.
Dickie’s association with Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr.), an African American criminal, introduces the theme of Italian American/African American racial tensions, a theme which the original show only dealt with in passing. With the first half of the film climaxing in the Newark race riots of ‘67, Many Saints sets itself up for success.
In a breathtaking scene in which both Dickie, Tony, Harold and assorted mafioso watch the fires of the city slowly color the purple evening red, it is hard, as an audience, not to appreciate all the dominos which the first half of the movie so meticulously prepares.
And yet, for how great this first hour is, everything after the Newark riots (as well as a particularly shocking character death a third of the way through) seems to fall flat. After a time-skip reorients the film into 1974, and Michael Gandolfini hits the screen as the teenage version of his father’s role, the film seems to forget what it wants to be about.
In some scenes, it is a historic drama about racial injustice, pitting Italian-American criminals against African-American criminals, all against the backdrop of the burning city of Newark.
In other scenes, it wants to be a golden-age Mafia tragedy — the rise and fall of Dickie Moltisanti, as flawed and imperfect as Michael Corleone, complete with goomars (Sopranos slang for side-piece), drugs and bar shootouts.
Still in other scenes, it wants to be a frame narrative about Tony Soprano’s childhood and adolescence in the shadow of Dickie, replete with the familiar faces of Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll), Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), and good old papa Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal).
In trying to embody three films, Many Saints fails to be any of them, and the focus, pacing and tone all suffer for it.
Although the tensions between Harold and Dickie could have led somewhere interesting, audiences are not given enough time to really learn who Harold is, why he does the things that he does, or how he really feels about his place in Newark.
Similarly, although the scenes between teenage Tony and Dickie are good enough, they come so infrequently that to call the film as “Tony Soprano origin story” as HBO Max has billed it seems misinformed.
The greatest success of the film is the story of Dickie Moltisanti himself, and even here, it stumbles. Although Dickie’s story is more fleshed out than most of the other characters, the film is bloated with so many other ideas that one only catches Dickie’s rise through the DiMeo crime family in snatches.
This certainly is not helped by the time jump (something which only really happens to shoe-horn in the story of adolescent Tony), which skips through much of Dickie Moltisanti’s formative years.
Of course, The Sopranos was no stranger to complex, interweaving plot lines, but where the original show had roughly twenty hour-long episodes per season to flesh out these ever-branching character conflicts, Many Saints only has two hours to show off both the racial tensions of Newark in the sixties and seventies, the rise and fall of Dickie Moltisanti, and the birth of Tony Soprano as audiences would come to know him.
Any one of these plot lines might work in a single, two-hour long film (excepting that last one, considering how enigmatic Tony Soprano truly is as a character), yet to fit all three of them is a task which Many Saints just does not quite have the braciole to accomplish.
While this article has been mostly critical, one cannot rightly dismiss Many Saints altogether. The cast alone make up for the flaws of the film in spades, and although we barely spend much time with either old or new characters, any time the audience gets with them at all is enjoyable enough.
Vera Farmiga accomplishes the Herculean task of portraying one of the most hateable characters in television history, Livia Soprano, with even a modicum of sympathy, and similarly, Michael Gandolfini does his father proud, introducing a childlike amusement and sincerity to the character of Tony Soprano which only came through in isolated bursts in the original show run.
In fact, most of the familiar faces (with a few exceptions) are performed admirably, with Corey Stoll’s startlingly accurate impression of Dominic Chianese’s Uncle Junior a particular standout.
The new characters suffer a bit more, in this respect, not having much time to develop, yet even here, there are highlights. Joey “Coco” Diaz, comedian and New Jersey native, always seemed like he would be right at home on the Sopranos set, and finally seeing him as “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero’s father, Buddha, is immensely satisfying. Leslie Odom Jr. gives a pathos to Harold McBrayer which can be felt even through his scattered appearances, and Alessandro Nivola’s impressive somersaulting act as Dickie — from crass and charismatic, to haggard and anxious, to downright depressed — is something to behold.
In the words of Tony Soprano, this article (coming from a Sopranos fan, no less) might seem like an old woman with a Virginia ham under her arm, crying because she doesn’t have any bread.
Well, sure, a fan might say that any new Sopranos content is better than none at all, especially after twenty years of waiting. Maybe that is true, and maybe there is a time and a place for remembrance and nostalgia pandering, but as Tony Soprano once also said, ‘remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.
It is easy enough to imagine a future for the Sopranos as a franchise — a mini-series chronicling the exploits of Harold in the city of Newark, maybe, or perhaps even more content with Michael Gandolfini. They certainly have the cast built for it, and an optimistic view of things might frame the flaws of Many Saints as simply the first stumbling steps of something newer, something better.
One must hope that David Chase and co. will continue to branch into the Sopranos world, but hopefully, the next go-around will be done with a little more focus, a little more subtext, and a little more depth.
And alright, maybe “remember when” really is the lowest form of conversation, but a little more Gabagool would never hurt.