Warning: Spoilers for The Sopranos TV show ahead
The Many Saints of Newark has been marketed with posters saying “Who Made Tony Soprano”, on one hand it’s a clear way to establish the connection between the new film and the classic TV series, but for many, myself included, it gives the impression that this is going to be a film about the young Tony. Which it isn’t. Sure Michael Gandolfini, the son of James Gandolfini, plays a younger version of the character, but the film is actually focused on Alessandro Nivola’s Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti. The last name will be familiar to fans of the original show as this is the father of fan favourite Chris Moltisanti, who Michael Imperioli returns as to give a posthumous narration of the film.
Personally I thought this was an odd choice, both the narration and the choice of protagonist felt weird considering the implications of the marketing. The narration especially felt like glorified fan service and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed for some of the film when it clearly had little Tony presence. But as the credits rolled I realised that once again David Chase made a stroke of genius with this film. For those who don’t know, or those who haven’t seen the show in a long time, one of the core themes of The Sopranos is cyclical trauma and how that coincides with the families involvement in crime, and what Chase does with this film is delve deeper, in an unexpected way, into Tony’s involvement (and by association the trauma that comes with it) of his life of crime. And while I initially wrote off the narration, it actually plays a pivotal role in the prophetic nature of this film. Chris mentions how (spoilers for the TV show) Tony strangles him early on in the film, and while this is nothing new for TV viewers it becomes pivotal for the arc of his father Dickie.
Dickie experiences a somewhat Oedipus-esque journey throughout this film, falling for his new Step-mother and eventually killing his father while defending her honour. A decision that then allows him to take her as his goomar (i.e. a mistress), and while this element of the Oedipus story is clear on the surface, there is another element at play; that being how Oedipus was unable to avoid his destiny despite trying to. This idea coincides with the idea of “who made Tony Soprano” because the answer is Dickie, this again being something known from the TV show, but by serving as a father figure for Tony, Dickie is unintentionally killing his new-born son as it is the life of crime that he entices Tony into that eventually leads to Chris’s death, thus ensuring another cyclical life of crime, murder and trauma. This unspoken element of the film proves to be the biggest strength of the entire feature, as it is through Dickie’s actions, and eventual regrets, that we see the stage being set for Tony to eventually fall victim too.
What lets the film down are some noticeably weak performances in the supporting cast. I think director Alan Taylor did a great job of utilising Michael Gandolfini as a younger version of his father’s character, as while Michael’s acting isn’t stellar, it ends up not needing to be because of the mindset and fragility/uncertainty of the Tony that he’s playing. But for other actors, most noticeably Ray Liotta, who disappoints in not just one role but two, the same cannot be said. Liotta is so limp and dull in the prison scenes that they become a chore despite not lasting that long, but when he’s playing Dickie’s father he explodes in an energy that simply doesn’t match what the scene requires which takes away from the atmosphere. However the stand out of the film, for me, was Alessandro Nivola’s Dickie Moltesanti. Nivola is an actor that I’ve seen in a handful of films previously but never left a massive impression on me, but as the leading man he stole the show. I’ve already made comparison’s to the Oedipus story but truly Nivola captures the feeling of a tragic character, emulating his pride, cockiness and bravado when things are going well but also intertwining this with a wonderful portrayal of a character spiralling out of control amidst the chaos of his surroundings. One of the most stunning moments of the film, which I can’t go into too much detail as I don’t want to spoil too much in this review, takes place on a beach (if you know, you know) where Nivola gives a heart wrenching performance. But credit also needs to be given to Vera Farmiga who is tremendous as a young Livia. For fans of the show it was clear that it would be a tall task to fill Nancy Marchand’s shoes, but Farmiga encapsulates her spirit perfectly, to the point where it feels like it could be one actress playing both versions due to how in sync it is. I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with anyone about this film where Farmiga’s performance and how great it is hasn’t come up, and despite not having a massive role to play in the narrative it’s a testament to how good Farmiga really is in this.
While for many this film may be seen as a disappointment, in fact I’ve heard first-hand people complain that they were expecting more focus on Tony, and others saying that it didn’t add anything substantial to The Sopranos story, but for me it’s another brilliant move by Chase. Building off of the core themes of the show, the focus on a character who we’ve only heard about, but never seen, to give another tortuous tale of the trauma and pain that a life of crime creates serves as a wonderful prequel to the show. While the show frames Tony’s struggles as novel for the mafia life, what The Many Saints of Newark does is show that these issues and internal conflicts have been ever present and in their own way manifest into the next generation through the lingering pain.