Fourteen years after the end of what is commonly referred to as the most influential television program in history, its creator and overlord David Chase has returned to the world of crime, violence, and masculine lunacy to bring us a prequel film aiming to shed new light on the characters we all know and love. The Many Saints of Newark succeeds in doing just that, albeit with some performances playing better than others, and some plot machinations delivering more profound backstory and satisfying conclusions than others as well. After what feels like more than a few years of it being on the anxiously awaited horizon, “the Sopranos movie, it’s coming!” Chase has delivered what the majority of the legendary series’ fans will be looking for: familiar faces, an abundance of laughs, shocking violence, and resonant characterization.
The film’s greatest achievement comes from the development of its protagonist, Dickie Moltisanti, played brilliantly by Alessandro Nivola. He should be regarded as the big draw to the film, however, to Chase’s dismay, the selling point in the marketing has widely been Michael Gandolfini’s portrayal of the teenage version of Tony Soprano, played to perfection on the series by his father. Tony certainly plays a big part here as we see how the events that take place in the film shape him into the monstrous overseer of crime he would become, but it is predominantly Dickie who we are meant to follow through this story, and it does a great job of selling us on his importance to this universe. Dickie, of course, is the father to Christopher Moltisanti, one of the most beloved characters from the series, played by Michael Imperioli. We only saw Dickie on the series in brief flashbacks, and now we see why that is in full detail. His backstory immediately invests the viewer in this story as it moves forward and breathes new life into how we view both Christopher and Tony’s characters in the series in a positive way.
What happens around the vortex of Dickie and Tony is where the movie can feel more uneven, wavering between dynamite new characters, fantastic portrayals of old characters we love, hollow caricatures that beam with fan service, and loose plot threads that feel either unfinished or unnecessary. Perhaps the film’s failures at fleshing out its wide cast of characters can be attributed to just that: it’s a film. In the series we became attached to so many different faces and the unique energy they brought to the world, through hours of delicate writing and dedication. Here, giving a few minutes of screentime to characters like Paulie Walnuts, Big Pussy, and Silvio brings about some laughs but largely struck as being inconsequential distractions from the story at hand. With only a couple hours to spare, every minute counts and seeing John Magaro attempt what felt like a Saturday Night Live impersonation of Stevie Van Zandt’s (admittedly already over-the-top) grimacing Silvio is the movie at its weakest.
Other characters and their performances are incredibly rich and leave us wanting so much more. Vera Farmiga’s rendition of Livia Soprano, previously played by the late Nancy Marchand in the series, is the standout portrayal of an old character as she completely embodies her mannerisms and way of being, accent and all. Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano is another highlight, though we get even less time to spend with him. New characters also bring a lot to the story, with actors like Ray Liotta, Leslie Odom Jr., and Michela De Rossi all putting in tremendous work and making their stamp on the Sopranos universe. However, again, with characters like Giuseppina played by De Rossi, we see the limitations of this film in comparison to the behemoth of storytelling that was the original series. The film does an admirable job of getting us to care about her, yet the fate of her character ultimately feels oddly unsatisfying. The female characters on The Sopranos were a big part of what set it apart from a lot of its imitators. Carmela, Melfi, and Adriana: these were all fully realized women for which the audience could sympathize and see through their lens into the horrors that litter this man’s world. With The Many Saints of Newark, we don’t really have the time to invest in that, and it’s felt.
Leading up to the film’s release, my family and I had discussed getting together to watch it and putting on a big Italian dinner. We had all watched the show for the first time concurrently during the first few months of the pandemic in 2020. Amid so much uncertainty in our world and living alone, more isolated than ever before, The Sopranos became home. They were my family. They were there for me for days on end when my physical contact with the outside world had been shut off. It was probably the most meaningful tv experience of my life. The show seems to have had something of a cultural renaissance the last couple years as many people of my generation and younger have finally caught up with it, now more than 20 years after it first hit the air. The monumental series lives on HBO Max, where this prequel film is now available to watch. David Chase has said he intended for this film to be seen in theaters and Warner Bros put it on streaming against his wishes, so I felt pretty terrible going the latter route with it, but my family and I put on a lavish production of dining in him and his creation’s honor. I hope he knows what the world has meant to so many of us. We put out the prosciutto and gabagool, baked the ziti and forked some spaghetti, poured some wine, and topped it all off with cannolis and tiramisu. It was extravagant, only the best for The Sopranos. What The Many Saints of Newark delivered was a fun return to the world, allowing us some time with old friends, providing punishment and laughter, and outlining new backstory that only makes the series we love more powerful. An entree this film is not, but it is a delightful dessert and we should be happy to have it.