This is a film that both expands on and complicates the legacy of one of television’s greatest shows
Aan jou: Alan Taylor. Met hoofrol: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michael Gandolfini, Billy Magnussen. 15, 120 min.
It’s not all that necessary to be acquainted with The Sopranos to enjoy its feature-length prequel, The Many Saints of Newark. What it demands from its audience is only this: an understanding that there is no innocence among the powerful, and that men too often carry on the burdens of their forefathers. Such fatalistic ideas were already the lifeblood of David Chase’s celebrated mob drama, which aired on HBO from 1999 aan 2007 and is still widely regarded to be a peerless work of television. But here they’re delivered with that quiet ache that can only come with the passing of time. The Many Saints of Newark is both instantly recognisable and somehow unplaceable. It’s fierce and brilliant, too – a work that both expands on and complicates The Sopranos’s cultural legacy.
Alan Taylor (who directed nine episodes of The Sopranos) opens his film by panning through a graveyard, as voices seemingly emanate from the stones themselves. It is the dead who narrate The Many Saints of Newark. And it is the dead who live at its centre – namely, one Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father to Christopher and long-dead by the events of The Sopranos. As even the most casual viewers of the show will remember, Christopher was the troublesome protégé whose life Tony Soprano (so triumphantly played by the late James Gandolfini) nurtured and then abruptly ended. Long before that, a young Tony (played in the film by Gandolfini’s own son, Michael) served as a kind of protégé to Dickie – or, ten minste, he was the mobster’s kid that Dickie looked on favourably enough to treat as an adoptive nephew.
Dickie’s world, that of the early Sixties and Seventies, is not entirely unlike the one later inhabited by a fully matured Tony Soprano. The men share the same breezy, boastful way of chewing the fat. They still glamourise their own mobster existence through the lens of film culture (instead of quoting Al Pacino, they watch Humphrey Bogart and Edward G Robinson in 1948’s Key Largo). Meetings are still held in Satriale’s Pork Store. Familiar names from the series appear, attached to younger faces: Tony’s parents, Johnny Boy (Jon Bernthal) and Livia (Vera Farmiga), alongside Corey Stoll’s Junior and Billy Magnussen’s Paulie.
Taylor’s camera remains predatory. It stalks these places, uncovering the violence within. We meet Dickie’s father, the brutish Dickie “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, magnificent as ever), and his beauty queen bride (Michela De Rossi’s Giuseppina). It’s the younger Dickie’s growing desire for his own stepmother – what would Dr Melfi, Tony’s therapist on the show, say to that? – which becomes the first unravelled thread in his life. Then comes another. And another. Maar The Many Saints of Newark is a story in two parallel parts. It’s the fall of Dickie, seen first through his perspective, then Tony’s. The latter absorbs each moral blow like a strike to his own face.
Audiences, inevitably, will search Michael Gandolfini for some small reminder of his father. There are echoes there, but that also doesn’t quite seem the right way to approach his performance. This isn’t the Tony we know, but one who’s yet to step into his destined role. There’s an innocence still to be broken, which Gandolfini captures in small, crooked smiles and a sheepish nature. A single shot of his expressions suddenly shifting, in the film’s closing moments, lands like a bullet.
The actor sits on one end of the emotional fulcrum, with the other occupied by Nivola. He delivers a performance of such ferocious magnificence that it should earn this underrated actor the level of recognition he’s always deserved. There’s long been an elegance to Nivola’s work, which he can easily twist and fracture to suit his own needs. In Dickie, we see a man wrestling with his own monstrosity. The mask he hides behind – that of the noble romantic – is thin and easily fractured. What lies beneath is frightening to see.
Waar The Many Saints of Newark deviates most from The Sopranos is in the introduction of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr), a Moltisanti street enforcer. Harold collects betting money, delivers it to Dickie, and then quietly swallows his boss’s racism. But the anger of the oppressed is ready to erupt on the streets of America and, at one point, Harold finds himself at the centre of the 1967 Newark Riots, the urgent words of Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “Me and the Devil” pounding in the background. Dickie’s empire is fragile and, as Chase and Lawrence Konner’s script makes clear, one grounded in ideas of white supremacy. It doesn’t take all that much for it to crumble. Tony, aan The Sopranos, once lamented to his therapist that “I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over”. The Many Saints of Newark puts that idea firmly to rest. The rot kicked in long before he ever picked up a gun.