THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK – Review
The highly-anticipated “Sopranos” prequel THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK finally arrives in theaters and proves that it was worth the long wait. “The Sopranos” was the influential, award-winning television series that likely started the binge-watching phenomenon, but one of the nice things about this mobster drama is that there is no need to be a fan of the long-running series, or even to have seen a single episode, to fully enjoy this film and be drawn into its well-rounded world and thrilled by its surprise-around-every corner plot. There is plenty here for any fan of mobster movies or twisty thrillers generally. But if you are a Sopranos fan, there are plenty of extra thrills in seeing characters only talked about in the series or younger versions of favorites like Paulie Walnuts and Silvio Dante, and discovering how New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano and his world came to be.
Focusing on the Soprano-Moltisanti branch of New Jersey’s DiMeo crime family, the film gives an introduction to the world of “The Sopranos” and every major figure from the series at an earlier time. However, if you are a Sopranos fan expecting this film to deliver you right to the doorstep of Tony’s home, with the late James Gandolfini as the grown mob boss trundling out in his robe to get the morning paper, this ain’t it. The story ends with Tony still young but with a brilliant script by series creator David Chase and Lawrence Konner and strong direction by Alan Taylor (whose work included episodes of The Sopranos and Game of Thrones), THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK has creator David Chase’s fingerprints all over it and fully sets up how Tony Soprano and his world came to be, setting the stage for that iconic shot that opened every show but with room to fill in more details.
Set in the turbulent late ’60s and early ’70s in Newark, New Jersey, the story incorporates real historical events, as rival gangs challenge the powerful DiMeo crime family and racial tensions and changing times rock the city of Newark. The film’s striking cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau brings the turbulent times to life, while production designer Bob Shaw (who was with “The Sopranos” for five seasons), effectively recreates the period and the feel of the Sopranos’ world.
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK introduces us to 11-year-old Anthony Soprano (William Ludwig) and then 16-year-old Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini, son of the late Sopranos star). But the young Tony is less the central figure in this tale than his Uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), who was the unseen, but often spoken of, mentor to crime boss Tony’s in the series, as well as the evolution of this world into the world of the Sopranos series. Although young Tony Soprano is in the opening scene, the narration that introduces it comes not from him but from an unseen Christopher Moltisanti, Uncle Dickie’s not-yet-born son. Dickie isn’t really Tony’s uncle but a close friend of Tony’s father and a fellow member of the DiMeo crime family. Dickie, also known as “Gentleman Dick” for his nice manners and smooth style, is a father figure to young Tony while his father Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal) is in prison, also serving as Tony’s role model with the approval of Tony’s mother Livia (Vera Farmiga). Dickie’s own father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), a crime boss who once rubbed elbows with stars, has stepped back from running things, turning them over to Dickie. But his hot-tempered father still brings lots of stress to Dickie, after he and his new young Italian wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) move into a shared duplex with his son and his family.
You might wonder who the “saints” are in this crime tale. Moltisanti means “many saints” in Italian but it is not the only reference the film slyly reveals throughout. The first of these “saints” are a street gang of Black youths named the Black Saints, who are stepping on the toes of this established Italian American crime syndicate in Newark. To deal with them, Dickie has brought in childhood friend and former high school football team mate Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr) to deal with one particularly bold Black Saint. Harold and Dickie are friends but Harold does not find a warm welcome from the rest of Dickie’s Italian American crime family. Both Harold and Dickie are ambitions but circumstances of the times are frustrating Harold’s ambitions.
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK is an ensemble film that blends many story lines as it weaves a picture of its times and the world young Tony Soprano is growing up in. Yet, the film is very cohesive, never losing us as it brings the various thread together, thanks to the well-crafted script. We are kept on the edge of our seats by every unseen turn in the plot but the film effectively mixes family drama and psychological character studies with crime film action and violence.
The crime family is on the verge of change and all their maneuvering is set against the changes and upheaval of Newark in the 1960s, particularly the race riots of the summer of 1967. The time period allows the introduction of a subplot about Harold McBrayer, played marvelously by Leslie Odom Jr., and an emerging Black crime syndicate. Early on, McBrayer’s experience with the Italian Americans parallels the path of Jewish and Irish mobsters in an earlier era, but the changing social and racial landscape alters that path and deepen the story.
Racial tensions are a big part of the story, not just historical backdrop, and some pivotal scenes take place during the summer 1967 Newark riots, which set large parts of the city aflame. In 1967, Newark is undergoing changes, as migration from the South brings increasing numbers of Black people into its working-class Central and North Wards, neighborhoods once dominated by Italian immigrants, cause clashes. The summer of 1967, the Summer of Love, sees the explosion of race riots, setting large portions of the city on fire, as changing times roil this branch of the DiMeo crime family.
Like the original show, the casting is superb, the characters striking, and the clever script provides drama, humor and mob thrills in satisfying measures. As Dickie Moltisanti, Alessandro Nivola is superb as a man torn by maintaining the smooth veneer of his family persona and coping with burning ambitions to discover his own path. All the characters in this tale are complex and multi-layered, chief among them this central one. Leslie Odom Jr has the character, Harold, who undergoes perhaps the greatest shift, and Odom handles the role masterfully.
Two of the most pivotal roles go to Ray Liotta, who plays both boss “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, a flashy, egotistical character with a short fuse, and his imprisoned brother Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti, a looming figure who has embraced jazz, Buddhism and honesty in prison while still maintaining the requisite mob silence. A standout on the comedic side is John Magaro as the younger balding consiglieri Silvio Dante (played memorably in the original by Steven Van Zandt) – before the wig. The gifted John Magaro (who really should have been nominated for an Oscar for his moving performance as Cookie in last year’s unjustly-overlooked FIRST COW) is both delightful and unrecognizable in this role, capturing Silvio’s vanity and distinctive mannerisms while missing none of his underlying menace.
A standout on the drama, and psychological, side is Vera Farmiga’s performance as Tony’s troubled mother Livia, a role played so masterfully by Nancy Marchand in the original and matched here in intensity by Farmiga. Corey Stoll likewise shines as Junior, a character we meet in his dotage in the series but here a conniving striver with a penchant for accidents. Tony’s associates Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri, played by Billy Magnussen and Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, played by Samson Moeakiola in his screen debut, are also well-drawn and help craft that evolving Soprano world. Italian actress Michela De Rossi plays Hollywood Dick’s much younger Italian trophy wife, a figure that evokes thoughts of THE GODFATHER in a different form.
Shot on location in New Jersey and New York, the film also perfectly captures the period look and feel, with portions of Patterson and other New Jersey towns along with areas of the Bronx, Yonkers and other parts of New York standing in for an earlier Newark. While the mobsters are playing out their operatic dealings, the landscape around them is in flames. The camera work is breathtaking and the framing of the crime family dealings against the historic backdrop is stunningly jarring. All the costumes and props are properly vintage but so are the mannerisms, the racist undercurrents, and sense of seismic shift at work. Period music individually suited to each character compliments each scene.
Whether you are a fan of The Sopranos or never saw an episode, THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK delivers as a satisfying experience, a crime tale set in a volatile period, packed with depth, striking characters, drama and action, sprinkled with sly humor and crackling dialog.
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK opens Friday, Oct. 1, in theaters nationally.
RATING: 4 out of 4 stars