The Many Saints of Newark misses the mark ★★

By Inayah Inam

If you’re a fan of The Sopranos you’ll be mildly satisfied, but this unnecessary prequel doesn’t live up to the talents of its star cast or its creator David Chase.

**Spoilers are included

The highly anticipated The Many Saints of Newark was finally released to what can be characterised as a hype press marathon. First of all, I would like to make it crystal clear, I am a huge Sopranos fan. HOOOGE! Binged the series twice, subscribed to Talking Sopranos, and have been down many many Soprano youtube rabbit holes. It’s hard to describe to a non-Sopranos fan how long we had been waiting for this. A return to the family business that left our screens in 2007 had now finally made its way back onto celluloid. Along with the fitting addition of Michael Gandolfini (playing a younger version of his father’s iconic role “Tony Soprano”) and the underappreciated Alessandro Nivola as Tony’s beloved uncle “Dickie Moltisanti”, the prequel headed by David Chase seemed to have everything going for itself. However, the promise of an answer about “Who made Tony Soprano?” plastered on buses and billboards everywhere was largely unfulfilled and instead what was delivered was a disappointing pastiche of 1960s mob life. 

When I say pastiche I ultimately can’t help but compare the film to the genre’s successful predecessors. The Godfather (1971), Goodfellas (1991) and even the HBO TV film Gotti (1996) possess more cinematic nuance and Shakespearean gravitas than what Chase attempts to do with Many Saints. In his interview with Rolling Stone, Chase spoke of his interest as a writer to explore the societal and psychological dynamics that shape a human being’s destiny. The idea of the collective family fate dragging you back no matter how far you run away from it. “Destino” in the case of a young Tony Soprano is a product of his family’s dysfunction combined with the authoritative male influence of Dickie. Dickie’s relationship with a young Tony provides the emotional crux of the film and in this golden era of mob life, he is the mythic ‘larger than life’ figure who drives the action and ultimately Tony’s destiny. However Tony is certainly not the star of the show here — it’s Dickie, the greasy slick-haired DiMeo crime family capo who wrestles with the film’s multiple dramatic plot events: gangsters’ turf wars, family betrayals, patricide, race riots, and so on.  

Opening with a sitcom-style voiceover from Dickie’s deceased son Christopher ‘Chrissy’ (Michael Imperioli) who recounts the way Tony killed him at the end of season 6, Chase squeezes in as many easter eggs and references to the series as he can. From the easy crowd chuckling wins of classic series dialogue, “he was never a varsity athlete” by Corey Stoll’s Uncle Junior to the visual depiction of Johnny Boy shooting a bullet through Livia’s beehive hairdo, Chase shamelessly panders to the fans and sacrifices the opportunity to create a more layered and compelling portrait of Cosa Nostra. The caricatured imitations of beloved characters such as Silvio (John Magaro) and Paulie Gaultieri (Billy Magnussen) were cringeworthy and made me feel that I had tuned into an SNL spoof of Sopranos meets Jersey Shore.  

Some have gone as far as to describe the portrayal of race relations between Italian Americans and African Americans as “offensive” and antagonising. I would actually characterise it as unnecessary. Although I understand why Chase uses the racial power struggle to bring out nuance in both Dickie and Harold’s (Leslie Odom Jr.) friendly-turned-frosty dynamic, it’s drowned in cheesy dialogue and machismo that feel unconvincing and forced. Dickie’s murderous rage at his mistress’s confession of adultery with his nemesis (who happens to be Black) felt uncomfortable. Was I meant to sympathise with Dickie whose actions are justified because she cheated on him with a Black man? Or because he was her boyfriend’s nemesis? Or because she cheated full stop? Or all of the above?

As someone trying to be a ‘Saint’, we are treated to Dickie’s existential wrangling and gentle moments of redemption. He coaches the blind baseball kids’ team; he promises Tony to talk to Livia about her mental health; and ultimately he’s killed over the hurt ego of a lesser man. His death feels unfair but in a film that has showcased his savagery, it serves to underscore that in a life that enables so much disgusting selfishness not even a mobster can handle it. 

The film as a period gangster piece feels wasted. Tensions are kept on a low simmer even in the most explosively violent scenes and I never reached complete satisfaction to the impact level of, say, a Mafia don attending his nephew’s christening while his extended “family” of henchmen are gunning down gang rivals. Despite strong performances from seasoned character actors (Vera Farmiga, Ray Liotta) the movie remains underwhelming, never rising above the limitations of its script. Despite his widely known protectiveness over the legacy of the Sopranos, it surprises me that Chase agreed to this indulgent money-spinner for the studios. As to the film’s marketing tagline – “Who made Tony Soprano?” – I already knew the answer.

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