The Many Saints of Newark opens up in a cemetery where the camera wanders among the tombstones, each with those buried six-feet under telling the audience their life stories in voice-over. The camera stops on no other than the tombstone of Christopher Moltisanti where he begins to say, “I met death on Route 23.” Then goes on to state that the name Moltisanti(which translates to ‘Many Saints’ in english) is a religious name, and that he was an altar boy, but since living a life of crime, he’s “still f***ed.” And that’s the ultimate theme represented in the film: every sin will find it’s sinner. The rest of the film is narrated by Christopher Moltisanti(Michael Imperioli reprising his role from the TV Show The Sopranos) in a haunting way.
The days following the release of The Many Saints of Newark in theaters, and HBOMax, I’ve heard many negative comments on the film from fans of the television series The Sopranos: “It’s trash. A train wreck. An abomination. That kid is no Paulie!” But I myself am of the opposite opinion. I loved the film. Even with all it’s faults, I was satisfied when the credits started rolling with that infamous song “Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3. The movie is not as perfect as Goodfellas, nor is it even close to being considered in the same stratosphere as The Godfather. I was hoping the movie would be as excellent as those two infamous gangster films, but not expecting it at all.
One of the highlights I want to mention first is the film’s Director, Alan Taylor. The man not only directed nine episodes of The Sopranos, but has done work in other genres, such as seven episodes on Game of Thrones, and the Marvel movie Thor: The Dark World(my favorite Thor film, by the way), as well as Terminator Genisys. I think The Many Saints of Newark is his best work; he made the movie look beautiful, especially with the opening shot setting the mood for the rest of the viewer’s experience. There’s literally three funerals in this movie, so having the audience stroll through tombstones made perfect sense.
Before I mention the great performances from the main actors in the film, I want to mention the actors who are criticized most by Soprano fans, and those are the younger versions of the characters everyone loved from the television show: Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magussen), Silvio Dante (John Magaro), and Pussy Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola). I’ll admit John Magaro as Silvio Dante tried a little too hard to imitate the character played by Steven Van Zandt on the TV show. His facial expression, and the way he talked were just way too much, almost cringeworthy. Billy Magussen as Paulie Walnuts did fine with the very few lines he was given in the film. He wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough for me. The best of the three was John Magaro as Pussy Bonpensiero. He had even less lines than Paulie, but he did a great job. There was a moment where he looks at a truck full of stolen furniture, and the way he stands made me say, “Now that’s the real Bonspensiero who betrayed the loyalty of Tony Soprano decades later.” Soprano fans who heavily criticize these characters as a fault in this film don’t seem to understand that they are not integral to the movie’s story, only for the television show. Dickie Moltisanti is the main focus, and no one else.
One great performance in the film is of course Ray Liotta, who plays two different people, Hollywood Dick Moltisanti, and his twin brother Sally Moltisanti. Hollywood Dick is Dickie Moltisanti’s father, who brings his young new wife Giuseppina(Michela De Rossi) to America after a two year vacation in Italy. It’s not even twenty minutes into the film that Hollywood Dick begins to be physically abusive to Giuseppina. Dickie, who witnessed the physical abuse of his birthmother, confronts his father about it, and warns him that he is no longer a child, and won’t put up with the beatings of his step-mother. (Spoiler) Of course Hollywood Dick makes a slight disrespectful reference that Dickie’s mother was a slut, so Dickie — gruesomely — kills his own father. After the funeral, Dickie decides to visit his Uncle Sally Moltisanti in prison to inform him that his brother is dead. Ray Liotta playing twins is nothing new in the Sopranos world. Dan Grimaldi played in one episode in season 2 as Philly Parisi, and was whacked almost immediately. Creator David Chase felt bad, so he had Dan Grimaldi play Philly’s twin Patsy. Which is funny, because I was relieved when I saw Ray Liotta walk in frame as Sally Moltisanti. I said, “Thank God, Ray Liotta can still be in the movie.”
Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti does a wonderful job with the character that many Sopranos Fans have been looking forward to seeing onscreen. The character was considered a legend, and always highly revered by all those who would talk about him on the show. He is the central figure in the story with all familiar faces revolving around his last years alive. What he goes through after killing his own father brought me back to the similar dilemma Tony Soprano would go through after he killed one of his closest friends, Pussy Bonpensiero, but instead of having visions of the dead always being around, Dickie Moltisanti in his own way seems to attempt a kind of repentance. Which is why he visits his Uncle Sally in prison throughout the film, giving five thousand dollars to his friend Harold McBrayer(Leslie Odom Jr.) before moving out of state, and coaching T-ball for blind kids. But ultimately, due to the life he chose to live, repentance isn’t really an option.
If this film were to receive an Oscar nomination, I would say Vera Farmiga’s portrayal as a younger Livia Soprano deserves it. Not only did she play the part beautifully, the scenes with her and the teenaged Tony Soprano(Michael Gandolfini) worked well to establish their troubled relationship seen more in the show. There’s a moment she sheds happy tears at hearing about young Tony’s happiest memory involving her reading a children’s book to him after his father went away to jail. I felt moved by Vera Farmiga’s ability to convey that Livia at least tried to be a humble human being, despite her shortcomings.
One criticism I’m seeing a lot from people is the presence of who I mentioned earlier, Harold McBrayer played by Leslie Odom Jr., a character who runs the collections for the numbers racket controlled by the Italians earlier in the film. He leaves the state of New Jersey only to come back four years later to take over the criminal world from the Italian Mafia. His character simply represents the transition of the predominantly Italian neighborhood into an African-American one which is talked about in the TV show. Early in the film he takes part in the Newark riots which changes him greatly. Some criticize this as a distraction, but I found it exactly so, because I thought Harold McBrayer was going to be the one who eventually gets Dickie Moltisanti killed in the end, but I was wrong.
This brings in Junior Soprano, played by Corey Stoll. Though the character isn’t in the film a whole lot, it’s made clear why Junior Soprano is the way he is in the television series. The man is always put down in some way, and never gets the respect, nor the recognition as Dickie Moltisanti does. Dickie at one point laughs in Junior’s face after he slips and falls on some steps, spraining his back for a month. The injury is severe enough to where Junior can’t perform with a woman one night. Enraged, he smashes a small statue of the Virgin Mary on the wall. The revelation of what he does to Dickie Moltisanti shocked me at first, but knowing how the character was in the TV show, Junior’s actions at the end of the film didn’t surprise me.
Last, but not least, I want to praise Michael Gandolfini as the young Tony Soprano. He said in an interview David Chase had coach him into not basically impersonating his father’s own interpretation of Tony Soprano. In The Many Saints of Newark Tony Soprano may be a troublemaker, with the typical naughty language of a sailor, but Michael Gandofini plays him with a sense of a youthful innocents, and with the potential for a good, wholesome life, as wealthy as he would be if he were a career criminal. The audience knows the decisions he will make later in life; he may be smart, but he’s too stupid to make the right choices.
The only big problem I had with the film was the script written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner. It had it’s moments, but the dialogue written for most of it lacked what was best written for the TV show; there simply was no depth, or a kind of poetry that aligned with some of the great performances by the actors. In the end, it did not ruin the entire film for me, even if the script had Christopher Moltisanti narrate a line from the TV show I did not feel really connected cohesively with the final image, it still worked.
There’s one line from The Sopranos I thought about at both the beginning and end of The Many Saints of Newark Tony Soprano says to Dr. Melfi: “There’s only two outcomes for a guy like me: in prison, or in the ground.”
For a guy like me, who loved the Star Wars Prequels as much as the originals, I liked The Many Saints of Newark as much as The Sopranos. But like The Phantom Menace, The Many Saints of Newark isn’t perfect. I give the film: