The pre-publicity for The Many Saints of Newark made much – all, actually – of the fact that this was the origin story of Tony Soprano, fictional mob boss and kingpin of the TV show The Sopranos. Take a quick look at the IMDb page and there, at the very top, the blurb says – “Witness the making of Tony Soprano.”
The casting of Michael Gandolfini, son of James (who played Tony Soprano in the TV series), reinforced the idea – here’s how Tony Soprano became Tony Soprano.
But. But. But. Whatever The Many Saints of Newark is, what it certainly isn’t is a film about Tony Soprano. He’s at best peripheral to the action, which actually focuses on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s uncle. In fact the name Moltisanti translates as Many Saints, so even the title of this movie is telling us that this isn’t the story of Tony Soprano.
This is wise. After all, when it comes to “making of a mafia don” movies, there is already The Godfather II, and who wants to go head to head with that?
On the other hand, if this isn’t the story of Tony Soprano’s progression from callow youth to made man, it runs the risk of being just another mob movie, and there are already plenty of those.
To head that accusation off at the pass, big guns have been wheeled in. The Sopranos creator and main writer, David Chase, abetted by frequent contributor Lawrence Konner, are joined by director Alan Taylor (who directed Chase’s favourite episodes of the show, the publicity claims). And a roster of big talent joins Nivola as the story of Dickie Moltisanti’s rise and rise is told. How he coveted Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), the sexy young wife of his mob dad, Hollywood Dick (Ray Liotta), and how the mantle passed, brutally, from Dick to Dickie, with a challenge from Harold (Leslie Odom Jr), a rival in the numbers game from across a racial divide that might as well be the Iron Curtain.
Echoing Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in the original Godfather, Dickie is the mobster who isn’t sure he wants to be a mobster. And echoing Dickie is Tony Soprano himself, drifting at the edges of this story, starting as a kid in the 1960s and becoming a long-haired guy with a love of rock music in the 1970s. Tony has no interest in the family business and wants to go to college. His woes go no further than failing to get respect from his peers, and having difficulty buying booze because he isn’t old enough. Teenager stuff.
Liotta gives it some punch, and is interestingly also cast as his own, more thoughtful, cultured jailbird brother, Salvatore. And Vera Farmiga is fascinating as Tony’s mother, Livia. How remarkably like Edie Falco’s Carmela – Mrs S in the TV show – her Livia is. It suggests psychological avenues waiting to be explored. They remain unexplored, Chase and co instead opting to set much of the action against ongoing race riots, perhaps hoping for contemporary relevance.
Nivola looks the part and brings a certain dash to the role of Dickie, but there’s not much of a character to put his stamp on. And as for all the media noise about Michael Gandolfini being the spit of his dad, he actually looks more like the son of John Cusack.
In many respects this is a generic mob movie – the veneration of family, food and the church, the chintzy soundtrack, a reference to Frank Sinatra and a snatch of Ain’t That a Hole in the Head. There’s the obligatory unpleasant torture scene, with a novel use of an air impact wrench on someone’s face, and the Joe Pesci prize for psycho malice goes to Jon Bernthal as Johnny Soprano, father of Tony.
Nicely enough made to pass muster if an Italian mob movie is what you must have, but in terms of essential viewing, fugeddaboutit.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022