The title of The Many Saints of Newark is brilliant: memorable, unusual and, above all, ironic, because it’s a movie about mafia dudes who are the furthest things from saints. But it’s also simply factual, since the film is specifically about Dickie Moltisanti, criminal mentor to Tony Soprano and father of Christopher Moltisanti, central figures in the highly regarded and beloved 1999-2007 HBO television series. The Sopranos. “Moltisanti”? It’s Italian for “manysaints”.
Here’s the thing, though: did we need a Tony Soprano origin story? This elaboration of Dickie – who was dead when the TV series is set, but whose spirit threatened her in many ways – is meant to show how he influenced young Tony. But was not The Sopranos himself pretty much all about Tony trying to sort out, through therapy, where he came from psychologically, and why he was the way he was?
So, alas, many saints feels redundant, and in more ways than one. Series creator David Chase wrote the screenplay with Lawrence Konner, and director Alan Taylor directed several Sopranos episodes, but it’s more like GoodFellas-lite that The Sopranos. There’s little introspection and intriguing self-awareness that made these series such an unexpected joy, perhaps unsurprisingly: a movie isn’t a TV show. But there are several TV seasons of stories crammed into many saintsto the point where the elisions needed to squeeze everything into two hours sometimes become confusing or infuriating.
A great example: is it Dickie’s wife or his mistress giving birth to baby Christopher? It’s the kind of thing that takes you out of the story as you try to decode the clues the script has littered so far, but it’s not meant to be a mystery. It doesn’t help that the actresses in the roles – respectively, Gabriella Piazza and Michela De Rossi – look a lot alike. And it shows how the female characters are overlooked, even when they’re supposed to be the key to understanding the unexamined hypocrisies and explosive violence of Dickie’s personality. The women here are sacrificed to the journeys of the men, both literally and figuratively, in a way too familiar on screen, which was not the case with The Sopranos.
There are saving graces in this often harrowing film, mostly from the spectacular cast. Alessandro Nivola is fascinating as Dickie, giving him more depth than the script. Ray Liotta is doing some of his best work since maybeGoodFellas himself as the Elder Moltisanti who becomes an unlikely sounding board for Dickie. Vera Farmiga as Livia, Tony’s mother, pushes her way into a bigger role than the movie wants to give her, letting quiet moments speak of Livia’s frustrations and disappointments with her gangster husband. Johnny Boy (Jon Bernthal), who is often in prison – and how his misfortune affects Tony.
And it’s more than moving to see Michael Gandolfini, son of fire Sopranos James, damn close to bringing the actor who left too soon back to life as a teenage Tony. Gandolfini not only looks like his father, portraying Tony in a way that avoids impersonation, but he manages the same depth of feeling in his sinister, angry gaze, which does more to make Tony real than almost anything. what we see happening here.
The evocation of the period is also striking, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s; a scene with a Mister Softee ice cream truck took me back to my childhood in suburban New York in the 1970s, just for the way law it gets the look andfeel. But the volatility of the times – there’s a long sequence during the first half of the film that takes place during the Newark race riots in 1967 – is a story in itself, and perhaps the most unforgivable shortcut that the film take. Much of the conflict in Dickie’s journey stems from run-ins with former fellow criminal Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr), who decides to strike out on rival criminal cases on his own. Odom is fascinating, and Harold deserves his own movie, not least because white filmmakers using Blackpain as a backdrop and an opportunity for white character growth is yet another tired cinematic cliché that The Many Saints of Newark indulges in. Anyone who loves The Sopranos and appreciates how he continually upset stereotypes and is excused for expecting more from this film.