‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Take Two: Gabagood Enough

Okay, full disclosure: I got to The Sopranos late, on the pandemic bandwagon. I have not really had to wait that long between prequel film The Many Saints of Newark and the final episode’s famously controversial fade to black 14 years ago. In the grand scheme of things, protagonist Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola, playing the father of Michael Imperioli’s Christopher from the original series) is not that much newer to me than James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano (played here at young ages first by William Ludwig and then by Michael Gandolfini).

To me and my relative status as an outsider, Dickie feels totally coherent within the show’s universe. He exhibits problems that are intimately familiar to Sopranoland: his volcanic temper gives way to vicious, impulsive violence, and he is at odds with his mistress, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), who is also his new, younger stepmother (long story). But he’s easy to like; he’s handsome, he’s got a charming smile, and he’s a snappy dresser rather than a tracksuit aficionado. He’s nicknamed “Gentleman” Dickie Moltisanti (as opposed to his father, “Hollywood Dick,” played by Ray Liotta), and he earnestly seems to want to be a better person, doing good deeds and generally being a role model for Tony, the nephew that idolizes him. Naturally, the temper has a habit of getting in the way — his motivation to do good stems in no small part from an early scene where he murders Hollywood Dick in a blind fury and then stages the death to look like collateral damage from the 1967 Newark riots.

And in a sense, the familiarity is the point. As The Many Saints of Newark demonstrates, the past that Tony Soprano idolizes in the series isn’t much different; it is, as it will still be decades hence, a procession of funerals and petty murders, where lives end in stark and merciless fashion rather than a dignified blaze of glory. The mob has always preyed on its own.

Too Many Saints

Even at a strict two-hour runtime, The Many Saints of Newark can feel a bit bloated and directionless, a collection of mob scenes that are occasionally consequential but often not so much, seeming to unfold without a tidy dramatic trajectory. To a lot of people, this will be (and has been) a flaw, but it’s also true to the show as conceived by creator and co-writer David Chase (who had meant to direct the film himself but passed on duties to series veteran Alan Taylor). This is how Chase’s stories tend to go, wandering off on tangents and generally refusing the straightforward origin promised in the film’s tagline: “Who made Tony Soprano?”

Chase has made no secret of his desire to get into the movie business, having originally hoped that the Sopranos pilot would be turned down so he could repurpose it into a regular film. Instead, he and his collaborators worked to reconfigure the medium of television to be more like film, to the point where people who seek to “elevate” their TV work will still wheel out that tired soundbite about how their show is actually more like a long movie. But Chase has always been a TV guy, and you can tell; each Sopranos episode stands well enough on its own, seizing on the peripheral moments that we tend not to allow within the tighter, propulsive construction of an American film. Like rock movie Not Fade Away, the only movie Chase has (so far, anyway) both written and directed, The Many Saints of Newark is filled with those tangents and distinctly un-film-like pacing, stacking different story threads on top of each other until the framework ruptures in surprising ways.

And in this, the film can feel like it’s fighting its format a little. There is a richness here that feels overly compressed, like it might have been better served by a miniseries. It’s tough not to notice the irony — the growth of TV as a format has led to many bloated shows that result from creators overestimating a story’s scope, whereas Chase does his story something of a disservice by underestimating the amount of space it might need by opting for a movie. The two-hour runtime comes at his apparent insistence, which is appreciated but unnecessary in a filmmaking environment where blockbusters with a fraction of the density on display here tend to clock in at closer to two-and-a-half.

The Many Saints of Newark

We Didn’t Start the Fire

The trade-off, if there must be one, is that despite the film’s squashed feeling, the thought behind the character interactions and the world they inhabit feels uncommon, bursting with texture. We probably do not need to see the English classes taken by Giuseppina, who has been brought over from Italy, but they inform her place in the film’s world, as does an amusing scene where Hollywood Dick shows a priest a swimsuit photo of his new wife. Rather than Dickie simply getting upset at his father’s funeral, young Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen) brings in a TV opportunistically stolen amid the Newark riots to settle a debt, and the other wiseguys briefly try to set it up in another room before a livid Dickie puts his foot through it. Likewise, we get a more sympathetic and upsetting portrait of Tony’s mother Livia (Vera Farmiga) that only adds to her portrayal in the series, where she is old and bitter and tries to have her son killed.

Unfortunately, the presence of that texture also makes its absence quite conspicuous. Characters like Paulie and a young, bald Silvio Dante (John Magaro) can feel broad and cartoonish, less a fault of the actors than of the film not having more space to shade in these eccentric personalities that are sort of impossible to imagine as young men. 

Elsewhere, the film’s primary Black character Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) is shortchanged by both the small amount of space the film affords him and the nagging sense that he lacks the same careful depth and specificity afforded the various Italians. The series tended to handle race through omission, leaving most people of color as targets of the mobsters’ unvarnished racism. Here, the mobsters take advantage of their own comparative assimilation by doing the things that will persist throughout the series. They scapegoat Black people both real and imagined for any incident at their convenience, as Dickie does by making his father appear to have died in riots spurred in part by white police officers attacking a Black cab driver. Even the timing of his death allows it to be similarly attributed.

In theory, broadening the scope of The Many Saints of Newark is preferable to just showing a bunch of gangsters being racist again. In practice, however, characters like Harold and his wife (Patina Miller) explicitly verbalize social issues in forward-facing ways that feel inconsistent with the more knotty, implied meanings and delusions and outright lies that come from the mouths of the Italians — Harold’s most complex moment is when his idea of Black empowerment manifests as starting his own gambling operation that will be at violent odds with the mafia. Eventually, he becomes a kind of vengeful avatar backlit by fire in the street, boiled down to more of a walking theme than anything else.

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The Many Saints of Newark

That Demon Life

One of the film’s stranger touches is, like Chase’s film Not Fade Away, an eccentric framing device. That movie opens on, of all things, a meeting between young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards before switching gears to some nobodies who amounted to nothing in particular, really, as narrated by the main guy’s kid sister like she’s presenting a paper at school. The Many Saints of Newark is narrated throughout by the ghost of Christopher Moltisanti, whose voice appears during a slow push through a graveyard where the other tombstones are talking, too, as though the afterlife is nothing more than a limbo where everyone babbles life stories to an ambiguous audience.

Christopher remains oblivious and self-absorbed, having attained no perspective or greater enlightenment upon death. He believes that he is owed some kind of leniency by virtue of having once been an altar boy and having a religious name (“Moltisanti” means “Many Saints”), and he also believes the first man on the moon was Neil Young. The party at fault here, from the viewpoint of Christopher’s stubborn narration, is Tony Soprano, the boss whose dirty work he carried out and whose orders he was just following.

Though Christopher qualifies these eventualities with a bitter “but that was much later” every time, he ends up attaching his death to the story in no uncertain terms. We regard young Tony Soprano not as an innocent to be corrupted but as someone destined to kill, which is reinforced by a scene where baby Christopher pointedly starts bawling in the presence of the teenager who will become the man who will kill him. 

Perhaps Christopher’s narrative casts doubt on the story’s reliability, but to me, his commentary seems more like tangential editorializing, like notes written in the margins. Little of Chase’s work really comes off as stories relayed from a fully subjective viewpoint. If anything, they tend to be quite broad, communicating such scope that the only coherent way to regard them is to abruptly enter these lives at one moment and then exit just as abruptly sometime down the road. In moving backwards, The Many Saints of Newark further excavates the threads that run through the life of Tony Soprano, revealing interlocking circles of time, cycles of behavior and consequence that go beyond him. Through Dickie Moltisanti, we see some of the moments responsible for the direction his life took, but we don’t see all of them. And neither do we quite see everything that involves Dickie; we can only trace those threads somewhere out of frame, to other lives we might not see. 

In this way, the film reinforces the sheer difficulty of escaping these recurring modes of human failure. Dickie beats his father to death for abusing Giuseppina, and he is outwardly much more genial toward Harold, who he went to school with. And yet, he impulsively drowns Giuseppina when she confesses to having an affair with Harold, the violent jealousy and the racism instilled within Dickie bubbling to the surface. These lives are an impossible confluence of factors brought about by particular environments and particular circumstances, sent in directions that can’t easily be changed with so many of those factors working in concert. The young Tony has been in too deep for too long to turn away; in life, Dickie is eventually advised to stay away from Tony, but the damage has already been done. Even in death, he points the way.