“I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) laments in the pilot of The Sopranos. In the show’s first season, you can see how nostalgia for a time that never existed consumes Tony and his fellow characters. They’ve mythologized the past to bemoan their present and justify their sins. His mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) frequently bemoans how Tony’s late father “was a saint”, crafting a figure that Tony can never hope to live up to. The prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, is a sneering title, sarcastic at the notion that any of these men were “saints.” If you approach the film simply through the eyes of young Tony Soprano, you’ll likely be disappointed, because that’s not the film that creator and co-writer David Chase set out to make here. Instead, he has crafted a film that gets to the heart of American myth and the sins we allow ourselves to perpetuate out of greed, lust, envy, and pride, but all under the cover that somehow these can be justified whether it’s through good deeds or simple restitution. Like The Sorpanos, we see boys playing at being men with horrific consequences. The Many Saints of Newark is much bigger than a Tony Soprano origin story, and it’s all the richer for it.
The film opens with the haunting voiceover of the ghost of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), reflecting on the life of his father Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) and his relationship with his young nephew, Tony Soprano (played as a boy by William Ludwig and then as a teenager by Michael Gandolfini). As Christopher reminds us, he was murdered by Tony, and that air of Greek tragedy pervades the entire picture, especially when Dickie’s father “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta) brings home the beautiful Giuseppina Bruno (Michela De Rossi) from Italy as his new wife, and she arouses Dickie’s lust and desire. But Dickie tries to be a good soldier and gangster by working with Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), who will always be an outsider to this world due to being a Black man working with the mafia. Four years later, Harold is looking to start his own crime family, which puts him at odds with Dickie, who continues to wrestle with his sins and how much he should take the young Tony under his wing.
Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner pack a lot of narrative into two hours, and at times, especially in the second half, it feels like The Many Saints of Newark is about to burst. You can clearly see how this could have existed as its own prequel series with a rich cast of characters to follow and more time to flesh out the ideas presented. And yet Chase doesn’t really seem to need it. Rather than feeling rushed and cramped, The Many Saints of Newark feels like a powerful summation of ideas presented in The Sopranos while also serving as a damning indictment of those who would put on hats reading “Make America Great Again” by asking, “Were you referring to this time period?” The Sopranos was always a great story about the American character told through Italian gangsters, and that doesn’t stop here. You can see it particularly in scenes where the Black community is rioting and for Dickie and his pals, it’s nothing more than a cover to perpetrate their own crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.
One of the reasons The Sopranos endures is that it’s such a rich text while still being deeply entertaining, and The Many Saints of Newark carries on that tradition. It’s a film that constantly has you considering the ways we use nostalgia and myth as the thinnest cover for our own downfalls, and then the film can turn around and fire off some incredibly funny moments. I don’t think it’s a mistake that when it came to casting the younger versions of Silvio (John Magaro) and Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), they went with actors who have a strong knack for comedy. A weaker film would try to hold up The Sopranos as something to be quietly revered, and therefore take those buffoonish thugs seriously. But Chase still knows his world cold, and that makes The Many Saints of Newark fit perfectly within the world he created. The only thing that differentiates the two is that director Alan Taylor has given the property a big-screen polish, and while The Sopranos was a cinematic series, here it feels even richer with its dark shadows and striking colors.
But at the core of it all, you still have the relationship between Dickie and Tony, and that’s the beating heart of the film where everything else connects. Yes, if you’ve seen the show, you’ll probably get more out of the craven and insecure Junior Soprano (Corey Stoll) because you know what kind of man he is, but the film and Stoll’s performance still establish that, and it’s all part of the greater context of the film that the world Tony and Christopher were willing to die for never existed. It was always comprised of monsters like Dickie, but because they were shown a little kindness by these deeply damaged men, they emulated these sociopaths. They built their lives on lies, and now they’re going to burn in hell for those lies.
I genuinely don’t know how hard-core Sorpanos fans will react to The Many Saints of Newark. I’m a casual fan—someone who respects the series and admires what it did, but I wouldn’t call myself a devoted follower—but I kind of loved what Chase was able to do here in just the span of a feature film. It made me want to return to The Sopranos and this tragic world he’s crafted full of repulsive yet compelling creatures who are filled with self-pity and yet have not an ounce of empathy for anybody else. Yes, it’s a great gangster story, but like The Sopranos, it’s great because it manages to bend the genre to its own ends and interrogate the myths of masculinity, individuality, and nationality we use to prop up our own desires.
The Many Saints of Newark arrives in theaters and on HBO Max on October 1st.
KEEP READING: Michael Gandolfini on Channeling His Father in ‘The Many Saints of Newark’: “I Just Wanted To Be The Best Actor I Could Be”