SOPRANOS prequel THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK is a rich, rewarding backstory for fans with a vested interest.

*** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity)
Released: October 1, 2021 in theaters and streaming on HBO Max
Runtime: 120 minutes
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Starring: Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini, Leslie Odom Jr., Michela De Rossi, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, John Magaro, Billy Magnussen, Gabriella Piazza, Samson Moeakiola, Michael Imperioli

As a standalone mob movie, The Many Saints of Newark never makes a case for itself. Its genre tropes and beats are all too familiar, often feeling rote.

But as a prequel to The Sopranos – HBO’s landmark television series – The Many Saints of Newark takes on legitimate meaning and intrigue. For film purists, being reliant on a 6-season series narrative to provide a separate movie its depth of consequence may be problematic, even a cinematic sin; indeed, there’s little point in watching this if you haven’t seen that.

For those familiar with The Sopranos, however, The Many Saints of Newark expands and illuminates that saga in compelling ways, and adds a richness to the inevitable rewatch it would likely inspire.

It also provides actor Alessandro Nivola a rare and overdue leading showcase that he absolutely seizes.

Not simply a Tony Soprano origin story, The Many Saints of Newark is a broader backstory about the DiMeo crime family that Tony Soprano would one day lead. The DiMeos are one of the main Five Families that control organized crime in the New York / New Jersey region. This early chapter is set in the late 1960s and early 70s, about 25-to-30 years prior to when the events of The Sopranos began.

The focus here is on Dickie Moltisanti, played with equal parts commanding charisma and troubled conscience by Nivola. Dickie is a lieutenant in the DiMeo family, a man who’s as much a natural mobster as he is a conflicted one, doling out his brutal responsibilities without hesitation while also feeling a compulsion for penance.

Dickie is also the father of Christopher Moltisanti, an eventual lieutenant himself played memorably by Michael Imperioli in the series; Imperioli’s Christopher also serves as Narrator here. (The name Moltisanti, it’s important to note, is Italian for “many saints.”)

As this story reveals, Dickie is a crucial figure for many reasons, not least of which for being a mentor to the young Tony Soprano. That relationship is explored here, and is particularly significant in how it poignantly informs the adult relationship between Tony and Christopher, but it’s also just one layer in the larger fabric of Dickie’s story. His life sets in motion the complicated dynamics that would come to define the DiMeo / Soproano crime family of the late 90s and early 2000s.

More patient than propulsive, this slow-burn arc will disappoint anyone hoping for something more predictably violent and provocative. Those notorious (and graphic) aspects are there, as is some carnal prurience but, like the series that inspired it, they’re mostly brief, jarring punctuations rather than progressively pulpy set pieces.

Case in point: after an hour-plus of slow, steady, character-driven build up, an inciting showdown appears to be the long-awaited trigger to spark an escalating crescendo for the final act. That would be true for most other mob movies, but for subversive Sopranos writer/creator David Chase it’s just another opportunity to zag where most others zig.

Indeed, it’s at this point that The Many Saints of Newark downshifts and finally becomes what people came for: a Tony Soprano origin story. It’s effective as such, in part because the casting of James Gandolfini’s son Michael transcends stunt casting and works for what Chase is going for: a more vibrant, hopeful Tony who also struggles with some of the surly aimlessness that Tony’s future son A.J. exhibited.

Even so, this young pre-cynical Tony displays traits of strong leadership and mob-muscle entrepreneurial instincts, albeit darkened by early stages of the existential angst that would come to torment him in adulthood.

The ensemble cast also offers rewarding turns as younger versions of the iconic Sopranos cast, chief among them Vera Farmiga who completely transforms as Tony’s drama queen of a mother, Livia. Indelibly originated by Nancy Marchand, Farmiga not only embodies Livia’s manipulative theatrics with credible authenticity, she also adds in layers of Tony’s future wife Carmela, a keen interpretation that makes both her character and Tony’s all-the-richer.

Some of the side characters are little more than enjoyable caricatures, specifically the younger incarnations of Silvio (John Magaro), Paulie (Billy Magnussen), and Pussy (Samson Moeakiola), but they’re fun and satisfying, especially for their limited screen time.

Time is better spent on Corey Stoll’s portrayal of Junior Soprano, Tony’s uncle and future nemesis, as well as new characters “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti – Dickie’s father, played with fiery gusto by Ray Liotta (whose presence in the movie takes a surprising turn) – and Giuseppina, a young Italian immigrant with entrepreneurial dreams brought over by Dickie’s father who eventually becomes Dickie’s comare (a.k.a. mistress). Giuseppina comes alive in a fiery U.S. screen debut by Italian stunner Michela De Rossi.

Even for as familiar as many of the story beats are, this particular mafia tale has a notable distinction: its exploration of an ambitions African-American soldier within the world of organized crime dominated by Italians. That character, set against the backdrop of real-life Newark riots that could’ve been ripped straight from contemporary news reports, really resonates. It also offers Hamilton Tony-winner Leslie Odom Jr a strong against-type opportunity, which itself is rewarding.

Director Alan Taylor (a Sopranos veteran) also deserves praise for helming this with period detail and tonal precision. Given that David Chase is the creative godfather, Taylor’s role as director is uniquely thankless, particularly in a medium that loves assigning auteuristic virtues. But he serves the material, especially in keeping it as true to Chase’s idiosyncrasies as he does the genre’s unique anti-hero blend of corruption and nostalgia.

The Many Saints of Newark is more character portrait than crime saga, more interested in a culture’s psychology and anthropology than the violent acts those ology’s spawn. But then, wasn’t that essentially true of The Sopranos as well?

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