The Many Saints of Newark is David Chase’s prequel to The Sopranos – and it’s a curious offering, full of so many scenes that hit the mark that I couldn’t help wishing it had been even more consistent. There was no way Chase could ever live up to the figurative void that concluded the series – the cut to black at the end of “Made in America” – so his prequel is inevitably a more modest affair, even if it does come with some big revelations about Tony Soprano’s formative years. At times, it’s torn between being a prologue to The Sopranos and a grand old gangster film, especially since Ray Liotta plays two characters – Dickie Moltisanti’s father and uncle – bringing the series’ own indebtedness to Goodfellas full circle. As in The Irishman, that often results in an elegy for the gangster genre more generally – a sense that the great epics of the New Hollywood period, already diluted by the time that Tony’s crew obsessively dissected The Godfather Part III, have lost their ability to resonate in the present.
Chase starts by situating the story more overtly, but less organically, in period texture. Whereas The Sopranos was absolutely of its time and place, The Many Saints of Newark unfolds in a more diffuse version of the late 1960s, anchored by the 1967 Newark race riots, which contour many of the key plot points. The main character is Dickie Moltisanti, played by Alessandro Nivola, father of Christopher Moltisanti, Tony’s “nephew” and one of the main characters in The Sopranos. Chase traces Molitsanti’s journey into the 1970s – his murder of his father, his relationship with Chris’ mother, his position within the Mafia, and his connections to the other older mob members in The Sopranos, all as a young Tony Soprano gazes on from the sidelines, played poignantly by James Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini.
Nevertheless, The Many Saints of Newark is not an origin story for Tony – at least not in the conventional sense. Chase is ultimately less interested in Tony’s backstory than in setting up the future relationship between Tony and Chris – and in that sense the prologue is very much a conceptual sequel to the final season of the series, which was almost exclusively driven by this relationship. Over the course of its six (or seven) seasons, The Sopranos established the driving obsession of the third wave of quality television – family. Tony struggled to reconcile his biological family with his Mafia family, and the tension between these two notions of family produced the dissonances and schisms that propelled the narrative forward. Chris was the only character who truly existed at the juncture of these two types of family – he was Tony’s adopted nephew, but he was also a member of Tony’s crew. No surprise, then, that Tony’s inability to reconcile these two modes of family led to him eventually murdering Chris.
In retrospect, the cut to black at the end of “Made in America” was Chase’s way of signalling that the fantasy of American family had reached a cognitive dissonance, and a figurative void, that no amount of longform narrative could resolve. Rather than attempting to resolve it, The Many Saints of Newark sets out to texture and contour it further, starting with a voiceover from Chris, speaking beyond the grave, informing us that we’re about to see an even more longform account of the events that precipitated his death. Chris is the only character who carries through in his original incarnation, albeit in voiceover (we only see him as a baby), foreshadowing (and recalling) the way he becomes a pivot for the series in the final season.
The quilting-point between Chris and Tony was the question of how Chris’ father died – the great mystery of The Sopranos, and a mystery that Tony was invested in keeping obscure, since it allowed him to step into the role of father-figure in both Chris’ familial and Mafia life. By controlling the narrative of how Chris’ father died, Tony was able to preserve Chris as a middle term between his two families, so by showing us the facts of this backstory, Chase is once again acknowledging that Tony’s project was doomed to failure from the outset. In effect, making a film about Dickie’s death is the same figurative gesture as cutting to black – an acknowledgment that Tony’s effort to blend his two families was destined to destroy him.
This gesture is even more emphatic in that Dickie, Chris’ father, has an equally tortured relation to his own father, Dickie Moltisanti Senior, played by Ray Liotta. Dickie murders Dickie Senior early in the film, after his father brings home a new bride from Italy – Giuseppina, played by Michela De Rossi. Dickie is disgusted that his father has already started beating his wife, but the tipping-point comes when Dickie Senior insults his former wife (Dickie’s mother) and accuses Dickie of harbouring feelings for his new stepmother. These insults hit home because they’re true, since no sooner has Dickie murdered his father than he marries Giuseppina. In effect, he kills his father and marries his mother, exclaiming “mother-fucker” when the doorbell rings in the midst of their first sexual exchange (or the first we see). Yet Giuseppina replies that “I like that word, mother-fucker,” relishing the English language for the first time after struggling to acquire vocabulary while she was married to Dickie’s father.
At the very moment when Italian becomes Italian-American, then, it conjures up the Oedipal crisis, the fixation with mothers and motherland, that haunts the subsequent series. Yet that crisis takes a slightly different form here, at once more inchoate and more foreclosed, not unlike Vera Farmiga’s show-stopping performance as Livia Soprano, who seems both younger and older than Nancy Marchand’s stint in the first two seasons. To some extent, that gravitates The Many Saints of Newark towards the look of current post-quality television – the muted palette and dreary sombience that signals our anxiety about how much television can do in the present. Yet this register also recalls the self-consciously “minor” feel of the final Sopranos season, much of which was directed by Alan Taylor. Here, as there, Chase’s world is too haunted by all its dead characters to propel itself with much gusto, especially since Tony and Gandolfini are both long gone. At times, the film seems to be reaching out to a smoky realm where we can still commune with Gandolfini on the other side of that final cut to black.
Like the final season of The Sopranos, this “minor” or “late” style tends to dissociate narrative, meaning that the events of the film are quite hard to follow, although not necessarily in a bad way. Chase and Taylor capture the sense of stuff going on above young Tony’s head, evoking a Mafia ambience that he hasn’t quite processed yet, which means that Tony himself is never quite front and centre either. From a distance, some of the scenes resemble the flashbacks in the original series, which worked to decentre as much as establish Tony, except that Chase goes much further in this direction now. Even when he’s the ostensible point of focus, Tony is rarely doing anything – he’s just present, prescient, in the mise-en-scene, as if the fact of Gandolfini’s death (and Tony’s symbolic death) is still too raw for us to deal with Tony directly.
For that reason, Chase doesn’t lean too heavily on continuity with the characters from the original series, even though Syl and Paulie, in particular, are present for many of the key scenes. Instead, we glimpse them in the shadows, around the fringes of the action, which beautifully captures how we often remember adults from our childhood – as slightly archetypal, larger-than life, but also curiously unformed; massive in their essence but vague around the edges. Maybe that’s why Chase brings in so many new characters, but this ends up being the weakest part of the film, which only hits its groove when it luxuriates in this strange combination of distance and immediacy – the way that adults from our childhood (or adults we saw in an earlier period of television viewing) both recede and stand out in our memories of them. Chase remembers these characters in the way we often recall television.
That fusion of nearness and distance is fully embodied by Michael Gandolfini, whose Tony is always situated at a reserved, elliptical distance from the action. Michael really captures the body language of Tony (especially Tony in therapy) which is all the more uncanny when it seems unconscious or inadvertent. You sense him working over his father’s death in and through the film, not unlike Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza, which imbues his every gesture with a magnetic immediacy that gathers all the film’s sombience into a dreamy, dispersed groove. When Gandolfini is around, it’s like we’re inhabiting Tony’s psyche during a therapy session, which means we’re also in the implied position of Jennifer Melfi, sifting through Tony’s different versions of himself. Arguably the best scene of the film captures this Melfiesque proximity, the sense that Melfi was with Tony before he ever sought out therapy, as Tony and Livia meet a school counsellor for a session that feels thoroughly proto-Melfi.
In that sense, The Many Saints of Newark is both more and less introspective than The Sopranos – there’s less overt soul-searching, to be sure, but only because we’re already inside Tony’s head. To keep this balance fresh, Chase often jumps far away from the action to envisage the entire drama from an outsider’s perspective – especially that of the black characters who form part of Dickie’s broader swathe of acquaintances, and whose lives intersect more brutally with the race riots. By retreating to this outer circle of blackness, Chase seems to be approximating the distance of Melfi, the counterpoint we need to Tony’s introspection, which becomes an ambient principle here more than a narrative orientation.
That intensely inward atmosphere does mean that The Many Saints of Newark isn’t especially interested in the acute sense of place that drove The Sopranos, and the third wave of quality television more generally, where it was typically most pronounced around morbidly augmented family homes (Walt’s meth-fuelled house in Breaking Bad, the funeral parlour in Six Feet Under, Bill’s polygamous compound in Big Love) that haven’t yet come to fruition at this early point in Chase’s narrative. Most of the shots are too tight to disclose a location, while the dim palette adds to the sense of placelessness, evoking a pre-gentrified Italian-American Jersey that hasn’t yet congealed into the cultural capital of Tony’s lovingly textured cul-de-sac. On the flipside, this does produce a series of uncanny moments when we suddenly realise we’re in a familiar space, but shorn of the acute spatiality of the original series. In one scene, for example, it took me ten minutes before I realised, with a shock, that the action was unfolding in Livia’s house – the same house where Janice ends up murdering Richie Aprile.
Part of the reason these spaces remain anonymised – even Satriales – is that there’s very little focus on food. In fact, watching The Many Saints of Newark made me realise how much food produced place in the original series, along with Chase’s appetite for place more generally. Without that connection, the prequel only ventures into a more expansive space once – and then immediately forecloses it. This expansion and contraction of space coincides with Dickie’s final crisis, starting with a sweeping aerial shot that depicts him and Giuseppina driving down the Jersey Shore. Chase follows this with the widest space in the film – a Jersey beach, where Dickie and Giuseppina stroll after he promises to help her set up a beauty salon, and where they finally seem on the verge of putting their marital squabbles behind them. This doesn’t come close to the spatial scheme of “Whitecaps,” (to take just one example from the original series) but in the context of this prequel it feels like a critical consolidation moment for Dickie, both spatially and emotionally – especially since it’s all scored to Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing,” the lushest song we hear, and the closest to the original series’ soundscape.
Yet this expansive moment quickly comes undone, as Giuseppina chooses this precise instant to confess to Dickie, in the spirit of honesty, that she had a brief affair with a black man. Dickie drowns her, then and there, in the surf, as the broadest horizons of the film abruptly give way to water washing chaotically over the lens, barely permitting us to see the murder before Giuseppina’s body drifts out to sea. Just when Chris, still narrating, glimpses a harmonious backstory, his father murders his mother, mere months after Chris has been born. The legacy of the prequel, like that of the series, is a self-destructive patriarchal structure, a fixation with family that destroys family. Chris’ father killed his father and symbolically married his mother, who also turned out to be Chris’ mother, until Dickie killed her too. This turns Tony into a surrogate father, who will also kill Chris later on (to pre-empt Chris killing him), while, in a final twist, Junior orders Dickie killed, completing the devolution of these two forms of family.
And that is the final note of The Many Saints of Newark – the sense that not only has Tony failed to bridge these two forms of family, but that he was always going to fail, and that his failure was destined to impoverish both forms of family in the process. In that sense, the prequel is a conceptual sequel to “Made in America” – not by showing us what happens next, but by reminding us that nothing could have happened but the cut to black, and the cognitive dissonance that accompanied it, once Tony set out to reconcile these two modes of family. When The Sopranos theme rolls up over the closing credits, then, it has an odd inflection – we’re used to it as a statement of intent, an auteurist promise of endless longform narrative ingenuity to come. Many of us, myself included, hear it every time we see the HBO logo. But coming at the end of a film, especially this film, it feels like a muted acknowledgment that things have shifted – that Tony’s familial project already feels foreclosed from the outset now.