Alessandro Nivola (Dickie Moltisanti), Leslie Odom Jr. (Harold McBrayer), Jon Bernthal (Johnny Soprano), Vera Farmiga (Livia Soprano), Corey Stoll (Junior Soprano), Ray Liotta (‘Hollywood Dick’ Moltisanti), Michela De Rossi (Giuseppina Moltisanti), Michael Gandolfini (Teenage Tony Soprano), Billy Magnussen (Paulie Walnuts), John Magaro (Silvio Dante)
“My uncle Tony…” It is certainly great to hear Christopher’s voice again. He narrates the story in this long awaited Sopranos prequel from the grave. Chrissy forms the link between the spirit world – where the beloved show now resides – and the world of The Many Saints of Newark, which is now coming to life on cinema screens worldwide and on streaming service HBO Max.
This world, which is set in the 1960’s in New Jersey, is inhabited by many familiar characters in their younger years: Tony Soprano, ages 9 and 17, his parents Johnny Boy and Livia, his uncle Junior, Silvio Dante, Paulie Walnuts, Big Pussy Bonpensiero, and a couple of others. The main character is Christopher’s father Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), who was referred to as a legend in the series, but never seen. Logical, since he was already dead when the show started.
We meet Dickie at the Jersey station, where his father Hollywood Dick, played by Ray Liotta, brings home a new Italian wife from the home country. She is into the handsome and charming Dickie immediately, which complicates the already difficult relationship between him and his mobbed-up father. And soon it leads to a dramatic moment early in the film, which is also none of the highlights of the movie. Both Nivola and Liotta are terrific in their roles. For Liotta, a double role that is; he also plays Dick’s twin brother Sally who’s in jail for life for whacking a made member.
Dickie is a troubled man obviously. He resembles his future son Christopher in many ways: he’s a compulsive law breaker, has an explosive temper and is a murderer. He is also searching. Dickie has the deep desire to do something good, something special to elevate his existence out of the mundane. But he doesn’t know how. Dickie is involved in the numbers rackets in Jersey together with a bunch of black criminals. In the first part of the movie, the 1967 Newark riots take place in which the black riotters, who are structurally discriminated against, face off against the police. In the second part of the film, Dickie’s black business partners get ambitions of their own which leads to a violent conflict in the Jersey underworld.
Besides having his own activities, Moltisanti is also deeply involved with the DiMeo crime family in Jersey whose members love him. But as we know from the show, in this volatile milieu inhabited by envious sociopaths, danger is always lurking. It is this world that young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini) is inevitably drawn to. Dickie becomes his mentor, but on advice of Sally, whom he goes to visit in jail, he turns his back on him. Although the film was marketed as the story of how Tony becomes a gangster, there is not one defining moment through which this happens. This is really at the early beginning of his transformation. Dickie is certainly an inspiration for him with all his influence, his money and his women. But above all, Tony is just talented, and the invitation for him to join the Family is there.
The casting of Michael Gandolfini – son of the deceased James Gandolfini who became a legend by portraying Tony Soprano – works wonderfully well. He is obviously a gifted actor like his father, but the way he resembles his dad as Tony is uncanny at times. Especially during the scene in which he and his friends hijack an icecream truck and start handing out free ice creams. Another standout performance is given by Vera Farmiga as Tony’s batshit crazy mother Livia. The dynamic between her and Gandolfini is great, and the scene between her and Tony’s school counselor is genuinely touching.
Other positive points of Many Saints are the terrific sixties soundtrack, the dark humour and the many clever references to the show that fans will love. A point of critique is that although it feels cinematic, which The Sopranos also did by the way, the screenplay is written more like a long television episode. Storywise, a few cogs are missing and the ending comes too suddenly.
David Chase has expressed interest in doing another period piece about young Tony Soprano together with Terence Winter, who wrote some of the best Sopranos-episodes. Winter responded positively, so there might be another return to this universe Chase has created. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay by me. The Many Saints is a very enjoyable return to the show that still ranks as one of the best ever. The Many Saints can now be added as a great cinematic companion piece.