The Many Saints of Newark is a banner prequel to television’s greatest mafia crime drama. Fourteen years after The Sopranos series finale on HBO, writer and showrunner David Chase shows us the nascent stage of an iconic gangster. Tony Soprano was forged in a firestorm of racial unrest under the tutulage of a charismatic murderer. The Many Saints of Newark tells the riveting story of how Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) took control of New Jersey’s DiMeo crime family and influenced an impressionable nephew that worshipped him.
In 1967 Newark, Dickie Moltisanti takes young Tony Soprano (William Ludwig) to pick up his father. Crime boss Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) has returned from Italy with his gorgeous new bride, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). The Summer of Love did not cross the Hudson River. Newark simmers with racial tensions. Dickie tells his father that local black gangs are trying to muscle in on their “numbers” racket. Dickie dispatches his black enforcer, Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), to rectify the situation.
The DiMeo family faces multiple existential threats as Newark explodes into race riots. Tony’s father (Jon Bernthal), a feared and respected capo, goes to jail. Leaving his erratic wife, Livia (Vera Farmiga), to care for their children. Meanwhile, Harold has had a Black Power awakening. Why should the white Italians control betting in Newark’s black neighborhoods? As time passes, enemies emerge to challenge Dickie from outside and within. But his beloved nephew, now a formidable teenager (Michael Gandolfini), starts to show tremendous aptitude in “this thing of ours.”
The Many Saints of Newark takes the needed time to develop characters that audiences know intricately. Junior (Corey Stoll), Paulie “Walnuts” (Billy Magnussen), Silvio (John Magaro), and Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola) play essential roles in the family. We see their personalities and idiosyncrasies grow under duress. They earn their status as an elite crew of criminals. This exposition will be completely lost on those who haven’t seen the show. And probably feels like filler that detracts from the main storyline. David Chase does not gloss over the supporting characters that helped make The Sopranos so memorable.
Vera Farmiga nails the awful traits that Nancy Marchand personified as Livia before her death filming season three. Livia Soprano is a complex, grating woman that has difficulty showing happiness or exhibiting love for her children. A prosthetic nose makes Farmiga a dead ringer for a younger Marchand, who chewed up the screen with her fierce personality. Farmiga gives Livia a softer touch here as we see the hardships that shaped the character.
Alessandro Nivola has the most difficult role in the film. Dickie Moltisanti, Christopher’s (Michael Imperioli) father, was referenced repeatedly on the show. Nivola gives light and significant presence to a pivotal, previously unseen character. The plot has a few surprises in store for Dickie. He’s capable of anything, but also has the ability for atonement and self-reflection. Dickie clearly understands that he is not a good role model for Tony. His outlet for penance is a fascinating twist. Alessandro Nivola is outstanding in a nuanced performance.
The Many Saints of Newark gives Michael Gandolfini the chance to honor his brilliant father. James Gandolfini etched Tony Soprano into a defining character. His son carries on the mantle by successfully portraying the younger Tony. I can honestly say this was my greatest concern for the film. Michael Gandolfini shows fantastic promise in this role. He’s tough and mean-spirited, but searching for answers to his loneliness. David Chase can continue the story of Tony Soprano with him as the lead.
The Many Saints of Newark is a deliberative gangster film. It’s meant for fans of the show, but succinctly explores racial segregation, socioeconomic disparity, and domestic violence issues. The period setting during the Newark riots pulls no punches. David Chase continues to be a superb writer who’s unafraid to be gritty. The Many Saints of Newark is a production of Chase Films, HBO Films, and New Line Cinema. It will have a concurrent theatrical and HBO Max release on October 1st from Warner Bros.