“That’s the guy,” says the ghost of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). “My uncle Tony. The guy I went to hell for.” It’s Cristopher’s shade who narrates Sopranos series creator David Chase’s The Many Saints of Newark, his first return to the world of organized crime since the infamous 2007 cut to black, and as a foul-mouthed Virgil he fits the film’s petty, hapless tone perfectly. Saints tells the intertwined stories of Christopher’s father Dickie, played with unselfconscious charm by Alessandro Nivola, and his “uncle” Tony Soprano, played as a young boy by William Ludwig and by late Sopranos star James Gandolfini’s son Michael as a troubled teenager. It’s an odd, hairy movie, peopled in part by younger actors doing goofy impressions of their original series counterparts — the running gag of Silvio Dante’s (John Magaro) hairpiece is like something straight out of a Marx Brothers routine — and in part by earnest, powerful work like Gandolfini’s reinterpretation of his father’s iconic role and Ray Liotta’s performances as twin brothers “Hollywood” Moltisanti and the incarcerated Salvatore, or Sally.
The callbacks, though, are well beside the point. Racist violence and domestic abuse, always part of the original series’ makeup, take center stage here. The explosion of anti-Black violence which set off and then crushed the Newark Riots of 1967 forms the dramatic crux of the film’s first half, with gangsters blundering through street riots and watching with increasing perplexity as first police and then National Guard brutalize and slaughter the city’s Black population, driving tanks through downtown Newark and beating Black men to death on street corners. The supposed glamor and standards idolized by Tony and his crew in The Sopranos amount to little more than tacky clothes and ugly restaurants where newly-assimilated Italians play at whiteness while Black people die just outside, shredded by a cultural machine which mere years beforehand would have been just as happy to grind up those same Italians.
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…and It Felt Like a Kiss
Then there’s Dickie himself, who shortly after we meet him kills his wife-battering father “Hollywood” Dick (Ray Liotta) in an impulsive fit of rage, bellowing that Hollywood only got away with what he did to his first wife, Dickie’s mother, because Dick was too little to intervene. But what does Dickie do with power over the women in his own life? His wife Joanne (Gabriella Piazza) he humiliates on a daily basis. His mistress or “comare,” his late father’s second wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), he first controls and undercuts, then later drowns in another moment of compulsive fury. The scene in which he does so is the film’s most visually dynamic and engrossing, the roar of the tide on the Jersey coast building and fading, building and fading as the camera drifts through spray and shallow breakers and the water between Dickie’s arms froths white with her final exhalations.
This callous, erratic violence against women permeates the film’s most affecting subplot: the relationship between Livia Soprano (Vera Farmiga) and her son, Anthony. Her desire to be close to her child is as painful to witness as his desire to make her happy in his father’s absence and, after Johnny’s (John Bernthal) return from prison, to make up for his father’s offhanded cruelty and casual viciousness. The recontextualization of the infamous “beehive hairdo” story from the classic episode ‘Soprano Home Movies’ as horrific and scarring rather than hilarious alone deepens and complicates the series, drawing out more of Livia’s humanity and her experience as a victim of sustained domestic abuse in the stifling atmosphere of the suburbs. The film’s only major weakness is its reliance on Corey Stoll’s lackluster performance as Corrado “Junior” Soprano. Stoll can’t get the voice quite right, and his body language is broad and far too loose, so what might have been a classic Sopranos story of the outsize consequences of petty humiliation and resentment instead plays as bluntly farcical. Even so, The Many Saints of Newark is a plate of gabagool and mortadella, prosciutto and salami, fatty and strong and bursting with flavor, even when you get a peppercorn stuck in your teeth.