Did we need a prequel to David Chase’s seminal HBO series “The Sopranos”?
I didn’t think so until seeing “The Many Saints of Newark,” a sumptuous, gripping tale about the generation of Jersey mobsters who came before Tony Soprano, who pops up here as a teen played by the late James Gandolfini’s son, Michael. And while much of the promotion surrounding the film suggests this is an origin story for the gangster, he’s really a peripheral character who only becomes prominent in the third act.
Thathe is not the focus of the film doesn’t prevent it from becoming a fascinating study of mob culture, one in which regard for the law is never a consideration and the world is seen as nothing but a larder to be taken from, by hook or crook. Great acting, an intelligent script and spot-on period details make for a rich film that’s not so much about gangsters but about the price we pay for making deals with the devil.
The protagonist here is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a decent enough fella for a wise guy who ultimately serves as Tony’s mentor while his old man does a five-year stretch. Happily married and content to enjoy the spoils of mob life, Dickie gets a curveball from fate when his father (a great Ray Liotta) returns from Italy with a new young wife (Gabriella Piazza). A mutual attraction develops between them, which leads to bad decisions and a great deal of guilt.
As this domestic drama plays out, we’re introduced to series regulars Junior Soprano (Cory Stall), Tony’s mother and sister, Livia (Vera Farmiga) and Janice (Alexandra Intrator), as well as Silvio (John Magaro), Paulie (Billy Magnussen) and Sal (Samson Moeakiola). Eachof these performers have obviously studied the actors who portrayed their characters in the series, and their mannerisms and speech patterns can’t help but bring a smile to the faces of series devotees, these echoes recalling eventsthat are yet to be.
Whether you’ve seen “The Sopranos” or not, the film is accessible and engaging from Frame 1, as director Alan Taylor immediately immerses us in 1960s New Jersey and the franchise’s touchstone locations. The production details are layered and meticulous, resulting in a visually sumptuous film. Chase’s writing remains smart and gripping, the script populated with colorful characters, pithy dialogue and plenty of surprises, including one out-of-nowhere, gasp-inducing moment.
Atonement and redemption are the overarching themes, with Dickie desperately seeking both. His sins are significant, both within the family and without, his friendship with Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a particularly thorny situation. McBrayer works as a collector for the local boss, and the fact that he’s Black rubs many of Dickie’s associates the wrong way, a situation that causes not only a great deal of tension but actions that haunt him. His reaching out to young Tony is an effort to achieve a sense of grace, yet another gesture that backfires
Chase’s dialogue handled by this skilled cast is a delight to hear and behold, the conversations, at times volatile, touch upon our most primal emotions, fears and desires. Dickie realizes far too late that he’s his own worst enemy, his final sin being the inability to pass on this wisdom to Tony. “Saints” proves to be one of the year’s best films, not simply an opportunistic off-shoot, but a deeper dive into the souls of those too foolish to see the consequences of their actions.
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