THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK
(***)-JIM RUTKOWSKI
"...a decent balance of providing intrigue, as well as a character-driven standalone story..."

Woke Up This Morning, Watched Myself a Film

(101521) The evocative opening of The Many Saints of Newark has the camera touring a cemetery. As the shot moves closer and closer to a particular tombstone, it passes by some others, and disembodied voices emerge from somewhere—that other place on the other side—to tell the stories of lives now ended. Now, there's the fact of the tombstone in question, as well as the question of what to say about whose it is. This is the point to note that this film serves as precursor to that great, once-in-a-generation-or-more television show "The Sopranos."

The story here takes place decades before the events of the show, so in theory, it's a fine enough starting point for anyone who somehow has allowed the show to pass them by, in the 14 years since it ended. Some characters from the show appear as their younger selves, and others, who died before the show's timeline but whose histories meant something to the story of the series in some form or another, appear, as well.

David Chase, who created the show and wrote more than a third of the episodes, and Lawrence Konner's screenplay is more or less a clean slate. On its own, the film is a years-spanning, multi-character crime story about gangsters in and around the eponymous New Jersey city, as they deal with familial problems, turf and business squabbles, and determining whose lives are worth less than the trouble of ending them.
Those who don't know the show won't necessarily be lost. With that opening shot and the film's choice of narrator, though, the screenwriters and director Alan Taylor definitely let it be known that this film is for those who already know these characters, have a grasp of the story from "much later" (as the dead narrator puts it), and understand how these past events fit into the narrative and thematic backdrop of the television show.
The result is a decent balance of providing intrigue, as well as a character-driven standalone story, for the uninitiated and a bit more flavor, as well as some clever callbacks (from spoken-of events to the way these performances capture the spirit of characters and performances we know so well), for fans of Chase's revolutionary show. It's what it is, because this is what it needs to be.

The tale begins in 1967, as Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) welcomes his father Aldo (Ray Liotta) home from a stay in Italy. Dad has brought a younger wife, named Giuesppina (Michela De Rossi), with him, too. Dickie is married to Joanne (Gabriella Piazza), but he and his new stepmother start making eyes at each other during the first dinner together as a new family.

Here's where matters—in terms of plot and characters—get a bit complicated. The Moltisanti crime family is connected to the Soprano clan, currently made up of patriarch Johnny (Jon Bernthal), his wife Livia (Vera Farmgia), and his brother Junior (Corey Stoll). That family matters, of course, because Johnny and Livia's son is a 10-year-old and later teenaged Anthony "Tony" Soprano, the central character of the TV show (as if that needs to be mentioned), as immortalized by the late, great James Gandolfini.

One might imagine that the story of this film would belong to Tony, who's played, in a rather touching and eerily effective piece of casting, by Michael Gandolfini, the son of the show's star, once a few years of narrative pass (William Ludwig first plays the character here). It doesn't belong to him, in that Tony is more an inactive supporting character to all of the internal and external conflicts faced by the conjoined family. It also does—or, for those aware of what the future holds for this younger Tony, it does—revolve around him, in that the kid is observing what these fathers, father figures, mothers, uncles, family friends, and business associates are saying and doing, while taking in and figuring out what those actions and secrets mean for his own life and choices.

The story surrounding Tony is fascinating in the same way the show was, if not to the same degree. The plot—of which there is a lot, involving a racial uprising and lots of back-stabbing and the rise of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) as a rival to the Moltisanti/Soprano bookmaking business—is far less important than the other details. As Dickie makes some moves that give him more power but make him question himself (as a boss and, later, as a father figure to Tony), the focus remains on the personalities on display, the atmosphere of always-looming doom, and the feeling that these characters are trapped in a never-ending cycle but always-expanding circle of violence, betrayal, and self-fulfilling prophecies of desperation and depression.

Some moments, such as Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri (Billy Magnussen) stealing a TV before attending a funeral, are simply here for humor (It's funny by itself—and funnier if one knows that's exactly what the guy would do). Some details, such as a random slip giving Junior a persistent back problem or the spot-on physicality of John Magaro's Silvio, are here for fans. A scene in which Livia, after learning that Tony vividly recalls her reading him a bedtime story as a kid, tries—and ultimately fails—to play the good mother for once feels like the best of everything the filmmakers are doing with this material.

The Many Saints of Newark doesn't fill in all the gaps (For a film based on a show that ended as "The Sopranos" did, those expectations would have been absurd), although it does leave itself open for a sequel. On its own, the film is a solid and admirably eccentric gangster tale.
 

Directed by:     Alan Taylor
Written by:     David Chase, Lawrence Konner. Based on the
 characters form the series The Sopranos, created
 by David Chase
Starring:     Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal
Released:     100121
Length:     120 minutes
Rating:     Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language,
 sexual content and some nudity

THE SAINTS OF NEWARK © 2021 HBO FILMS
Review © 2021 Alternate Reality, Inc.