The Many Saints of Newark
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
Murmurs, complaints, and whispers come in and out of focus as a camera meanders through an empty cemetery at midday: we hear souls telling the stories of their lives. We stop over the resting place of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). He has a tale to tell.
It’s a beautiful opening, spooky but with a bitter, familiar humor about it. With it, director Alan Taylor sets the mood for a period piece that lays the groundwork for one of the best shows ever to grace the small screen. The Many Saints of Newark brings Christmas early for Sopranos fans, but this is not exactly the story of Tony Soprano. In uncovering the making of the future, Taylor and writer Lawrence Konner invite us into the life of Uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola).
Nivola makes for an ideal choice to play the beloved “uncle.” The always reliable actor depicts the film’s central figure as the struggling, complicated result of his circumstances – an excellent theme given the film’s long game to uncover the forces that forged a future boss. In many ways, Uncle Dickie’s weaknesses, indulgences, strengths and goals create a mirror image of the Tony Soprano we would come to know over eight years and six seasons.
Longtime fans will have a bada bing blast recognizing familiar characters in their youth. Vera Farmiga is characteristically excellent as Tony’s formidable mother. John Magaro is a spot-on and hilarious Silvio, matched quirk for quirk by Billy Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts. Corey Stoll brings a younger but no less awkward Uncle Junior to life beautifully.
Of course, the one you wait for is young Tony, played with lumbering, melancholic sweetness by James Gandolfini’s son Michael. The resemblance alone gives the character a heartbreaking quality that feeds the mythology, but young Gandolfini serves Tony well with a vulnerable, believable performance that only expands on our deep investment in this character.
But the film is really more interested in those we never got to know: Tony’s father Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), Dickie’s father Aldo and uncle Sal Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, in two exceptional and very different roles), and stepmother Guiseppina Moltisanti (Michela De Rossi).
De Rossi and Leslie Odom Jr. (who plays colleague-turned-competitor Harold McBrayer) offer some of the most intriguing complexity and context in the entire film. The first half pokes holes in the “woe is me” backstory of the entitled white male Mafioso figure by spending some time with two characters who actually did have a tough go making a life for themselves in this community.
Taylor (Thor: the Dark World, Terminator Genisys, GoT) helmed nine Sopranos episodes, winning an Emmy for one, while Konner penned three solid episodes of his own, although his decades of work for the big screen has been mediocre at best.
But here the filmmakers combine for extended family drama that, despite one major plot turn landing as entirely illogical, weaves themes old and new in a ride that is often operatic and downright Shakespearean.
If the Sopranos family feels like family, turning back the clock on these indelible characters is just as giddy and delightful as it sounds. But The Many Saints of Newark impresses most by the balance it finds between fan service and fresh character arcs.
It’s an often cruel and bloody tale of wanton crime, treacherous deceit, family dysfunction and cold-blooded murder. And it just might be the most fun you’ll have at the movies all year.