To describe verbatim the first-or-so minute of The Many Saints of Newark would be to spoil not only one of the film’s more audacious twists, painstakingly concealed by pre-release publicity materials, but also one of the most shocking story developments from the final episodes of The Sopranos. Right off the bat, the film pitches its audience an unexpected and unapologetically quirky Billy Wilder throwback framing device that puts a new spin on some of the show’s most cosmically ambitious themes: the insistence that every person, everywhere, has an equally rich and mythic inner life, and the teased suggestion of supernatural transcendence beyond death—an afterlife from which the world of the living might be observed through an uncanny veil mimicking cinema itself. You’ll just need to have seen the TV show—all six-and-a-half seasons—to fully appreciate it.
Alienating Sopranos neophytes is clearly not a matter of great concern to Many Saints, a 120-minute prequel written and produced by Sopranos creator David Chase, directed by series and HBO veteran Alan Taylor, and co-authored by writer’s room alum Lawrence Konner. Like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me or The End of Evangelion, this film is so deeply immersed in the dense mythology and self-contained symbolism of its epochal TV predecessor that to assess it as a stand-alone story on its own terms would be a meaningless endeavor. Like a new season, it seeks to use that established narrative vocabulary as a springboard for exploring and iterating on familiar themes in novel ways. Ethnic identity, toxic masculinity, psychiatry, sin, the American Dream, the traumas and morals passed between generations and the self-serving fictions developed in that process—practically every one of The Sopranos’ defining thematic obsessions and objects of scathing critique are present and accounted for in this stuffed, morbid, all-American opera of a picture, familiar territory but not quite as you know it.
In fact, far from the creatively bankrupt cash-in that some have cynically suggested the film could be based on early marketing, Many Saints comes bursting out of the proverbial shed with so many new ideas that one gets the sense it easily could—perhaps should—have been a new season of television. Set decades before Tony Soprano’s first day in therapy and spanning several years from 1967 to the mid-70s, it essentially interweaves three key storylines, each one hefty enough to sustain at least a full hour, if not several, on its own.
The central thread, a character study, follows the life and shifting fortunes of Jersey mobster Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti, namesake of the title’s “many saints” and future father to Michael Imperioli’s wayward Christopher. A posthumous character on The Sopranos, often mentioned but never seen even in flashbacks, his lingering presence as a surrogate father, role model, and martyr in Tony’s youth serves as key motivator in Tony’s own tempestuous mentorship of the younger Moltisanti. In Many Saints, as played by Allesandro Nivola with Sinatra-esque swagger—and, at key moments, empty-eyed menace and murky vulnerability—Dickie has daddy issues of his own. When his father “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), brings home a ravishing and exceedingly young immigrant from the Old Country (Michela De Rossi) as a trophy bride, Freudian conflict erupts between generations that leaves Dickie seeking the moral and spiritual counsel of his estranged, and imprisoned, uncle (played by a surprise casting choice best left unrevealed). Like his future protégé, Dickie is cursed with a niggling vestige of moral consciousness that does not jibe well with his line of work or lethal stores of repressed rage. In lieu of therapy, Dickie’s dialogues with Uncle Moltisanti, a penitent murderer and jazz enthusiast whose prolonged prison sentence appears to have granted him some kind of glowering, ascetic inner peace, put him face-to-face with a hushed voice of quasi-Biblical authority of the kind recognizable from some of the show’s finest moments.
To one side of Dickie is a completely different, Newark-centric thread covering characters and subject matter entirely fresh to the series. Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) is an African-American numbers runner in Dickie’s employ who, at the start of the film, begrudgingly accepts his place in the ruthless social pecking order: he’s mocked and condescended to by the Italian mobsters above him, but at least he isn’t hunted down, beaten and slain in the streets like the small-time Black hustlers he helps his “friend” Dickie apprehend. Daring to dream of a finer lot in life, Harold contemplates enlisting to win honor in Vietnam, a prospect mocked by his decidedly less idealistic wife. Newark race relations change for good, however, when the police beating of black cab driver John William Smith (a real-life historical event briefly depicted onscreen) triggers massive rioting and protests. While the Italian mob readily exploits the chaos and the suffering of Newark’s Black residents (illustrated in darkly humorous scenes that recall Tony & co’s tendency to scapegoat their own crimes on “unidentified Black males”), Harold experiences a racial awakening that leaves him determined to carve out his own niche in the criminal underworld—by violence if necessary, which unsurprisingly puts him on a collision course with Dickie and the gang.
Finally there’s the third strand—the one all over the marketing materials. One-third of Many Saints’ narrative is very much a Sopranos prequel, and that means familiar names, events, and catchphrases aplenty from the TV show. Following tragic events, Dickie is taken into the extended family of the Soprano brothers, big kahuna “Johnny Boy” (Jon Bernthal) and his eternal second-banana brother “Junior” (Corey Stoll, in Dominic Chianese’s role from the series). There he forms a bond with Johnny Boy’s sensitive son, Anthony (William Ludwig in the 1960s-set chapter, Michael Gandolfini remarkably channeling his father’s body language and facial tics in the ‘70s), a boy menaced by not just the brutal realities of his father’s lifestyle but also his emotionally unstable mother, Livia. Played by Vera Farmiga, Livia is here portrayed a smidge more sympathetically than Nancy Marchand’s unforgettable malignant husk of a human being in the TV show––sans the veil of Tony’s selective memory, we can see that Johnny Boy was far from a model patriarch himself. As the young Tony oscillates between following in his father’s violent footsteps and breaking free of the family business, the Soprano crew—including familiar personalities Silvio Dante, “Paulie Walnuts” Gaultieri, and Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpansiero (John Magaro, Billy Magnussen and Samson Moekiola, respectively, more recognizable as their TV counterparts by vocal tics than anything else) engage in the familiar affairs of scams, sitdowns, bloody internecine feuds, and lounging at Satriale’s.
On paper, these disparate stories form a compelling whole that meaningfully expands on its source material. Characters try rebelling against their prewritten fates, but as in the series, personality is presented as a stubborn psychological constant that can hold its own against free will—in other words, characters doing what we expect them to do is elevated from schtick to postmodern Greek tragedy. And on the topic of tragedy, the show was never more venomous and grim in the assertion that its subjects—the mafia, the Soprano family, and America in general—are bound together and mutilated from within by unspeakable secrets, traumatic acts of violence covered up with a family quilt of expedient lies, cancerous tumors doomed to burst forth and repeat themselves across generations. While the show was known for covering its grim existential prognosis in laugh-out-loud dark comedy, the tone here (with some welcome exceptions) is decidedly more muted, Chase and Konner ruminating grimly on the cyclical pettiness and self-corroding moral monstrosity of the American gangster. If the Italian mafia family since the time of Hawks’ Scarface has always been the warped archetype of the American success story, the stomach-churning acts that bind the Soprano family are rhymed here to the foundational crime of American racism, an endlessly repeating waltz of unspoken sins and betrayals that prop up a self-justifying, whitewashed mythology.
The problem with Many Saints’ ambitious, multi-tier plot is that within the confines of a single, cleanly cut two-hour production, its three pillars cannibalize one another in pursuit of limited real estate. Scenes roll forward over a large span of narrative time, juggling one plotline to the next, and often major developments in one thread or another seem to hinge on offscreen events only broadly insinuated in dialogue. There are points at which it’s unclear why characters make the choices they do—not in a provocative, ambiguous way, but because the audience is not given adequate information about seemingly important personalities who have only popped up periodically around the periphery of the main story. One moment, Dickie tries steering Tony from a life of crime; in their next scene together he appears fully resigned to it. A crucial plot point hinges on an affair between two characters who don’t even seem to be aware of each other’s existence before we glimpse them in bed together. Sometimes back-to-back scenes seem to occur in immediate chronological succession, sometimes months apart. Pivotal plot moments—in some cases, entire plotline resolutions—may as well be missing. In its final moments, the film tries to convince us it was actually about a different character than most of the two hours we actually saw. This kind of implied development across chronological spacing might fly with the breathing space of multiple episodes, but in feature format the discontinuity between one scene and the next only produces disorientation and whiplash. Time and again, dramatic moments transpire that feel like they should be tremendously impactful, if only we hadn’t missed an episode or two leading up to them. And the target audience for Many Saints has already seen 86 episodes! One wonders if, in the interest of securing a tidy, theatrically friendly runtime, sacrifices were made that might have better served the film if someone (Chase, HBO, who knows?) had been willing to embrace its inherent esotericism and go for a sprawling, Leone-length cut.
The biggest casualty of this overstuffed format is the Black gangster plot led by Odom Jr. While its symbolic significance is loud and clear, the film never knows quite what to actually do here. Odom Jr.’s character, never seen or mentioned in the original series, weaves in and out of the film with only passing contact with the major players, most of whom have thoroughly established relationships with one another that the script can lean on with minimal exposition. Though Odom is given several scenes to carry on his own, as an outsider he never attains anything resembling the main cast’s interiority or complexity—he’s largely relegated to a flat symbol of frustrated Black masculinity and ambition. In some ways he resembles one of the show’s many single-episode characters, but those figures never had to compete with so many other players and plots fighting to establish themselves in the same restricted timeframe. (And as one-shot Sopranos side characters go, frankly he doesn’t rank with the best.) More time or more focus might have given this character and his surrounding plotline a more complete sense of development than they ultimately attain before being shelved by Chase’s well-documented adoration for subversive anticlimax—but the same could be said of all else.
Chase is so insistent that Many Saints be seen as a “cinematic experience” that he forbade digital screeners and has publicly bemoaned a simultaneous release on HBO Max. One can debate whether the film is any more stylistically “cinematic” than any given HBO miniseries: Alan Taylor’s direction utilizes a color palette reminiscent of the show’s gloomier later seasons, a hi-def haze of autumnal daylight and inky black nights. As in the many fine episodes of television under his belt, though, the journeyman director’s technique is by and large slickly efficient and visually unintrusive, coolly modulating psychic distance from the characters appropriate to any given scene, saving conspicuous gestures of visual expression only for clear dramatic climaxes so as to give Chase’s dialogue and expectedly painstaking soundtrack choices center stage throughout. Chase, ironically, may have the same pandemic that’s imperiling cinemas to thank for this film having the audience it will: quarantine has prompted more than a handful of younger people I know to dive into The Sopranos and discover its enduring virtues in a post-Wire, post-Breaking Bad, post-Thrones era. Chase and his writers’ portraits of American angst, self-destructive egos, and fallacious strongmen now rings true in a totally different way than it did at the turn of the century.
If Chase successfully sells one thing with Many Saints, though, it’s that his sprawling vision of a fictional New Jersey crime dynasty is as densely detailed and mythologically grandiose as Middle Earth and Westeros. Its characters’ interior lives are as sophisticated as its byzantine family trees, giving the impression of myriad possible stories to be told around the corner from every Tony and Dickie in a richly symbolic America only slightly askew from our own. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that he’s already publicly mused about a second film. But why he’s so married to the cinematic format over the medium he helped define, and in which his talents for narrative scope and complexity shine brightest, is a deeper mystery than Tony’s last moments. Maybe that’s one for a psychiatrist.
The Many Saints of Newark opens in theaters and HBO Max on Friday, October 1.