Review by James Mahon
Fourteen years after the end of The Sopranos – arguably one of the best television shows of our time – comes a cinematic prequel, The Many Saints of Newark (Alan Taylor, 2021). The Sopranos as a series was defined by its piercing psychological examinations of its characters, its vivid mob life realism, and its startlingly original narrative. All of which are gapingly absent in this terribly disappointing film.
A lot was made of Michael Gandolfini reclaiming the role of his father, yet the film centres on his uncle Richard ‘Dickie’ Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Taking place over an indeterminate time-period, the film follows Dickie’s trials and tribulations within the Sopranos gangster lifestyle. It touches on personal aspects of Dickie’s life, from his antagonistic relationship with his physically abusive father Aldo (Ray Liotta) to his fiery love affair with his ‘goomar’ Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). It charts his rising conflict with disillusioned former associate Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), and most importantly, his influence on a young and developing Tony Soprano.
The most surprising aspect of The Many Saints of Newark is its artificiality. The crucial component to any gangster movie is its depiction of the interior and intimate camaraderie of those in a mob family. Martin Scorsese is the master at this; most obviously in Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 2021), but also in the brilliant closeness of Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973). This was the USP of The Sopranos itself, each episode emphasising the underlying bond between characters, making each betrayal more unbearable. This film’s failure to capture the spirit of its TV roots lies at its core with the screenplay. Lawrence Konner and David Chase (the mastermind behind the show’s creation) have produced a stultifyingly wooden script that neutralises any attempts at organic interaction or spontaneity. It is the ultimate sin – creating a setting and characters that are devoid of any substantive depth, leaving the audience uninvested and apathetic.
The film, at two hours long, is relatively short for one situated in the mob environment. Think of epics such as Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984), or more recently The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019). Still, its runtime should provide ample space for a comprehensive and well-developed story to emerge – look no further than Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997). Sadly, this is not to be. The film feels strangely rushed and predictable. Predictability is not necessarily a bad thing: it can show that filmmakers have established a contextual groundwork in which the audience can invest themselves and logically follow to its conclusion. Yet the overabundance of plot points and their condensed nature, results in less than cardboard-thick characters and seemingly absurd motivations justifying their actions. Film criticism has been rightly upbraided for its director-auteur centric approach and underappreciation of screenwriters’ contribution. However, this film is indicative of how a poorly written screenplay can permanently impair a movie’s chance at success, despite the director’s efforts.
Directorially, Alan Taylor does little to impress. The inventiveness of the show’s episodes is replaced by a nuts-and-bolts cinematic feature. Attempts made to delve deeper into Dickie’s psyche are distinctly ineffectual. There is one fantasy scene which tries to evoke Dickie’s desire for simple validation and approval, mirroring the fantasies of De Niro’s character ‘Noodles’ in Once upon a time in America. Its sole use as a narrative technique renders it bizarrely out of place in a largely linear format. This sums up the extent of the director’s ambition. There is no allegorically ambivalent, Leone-like lasting shot, nor are there any Scorsese moments of hyper-caffeinated claustrophobia-inducing tension. There is, of course, no need to parrot the stylisations of other directors. I only reference it as I fail to identify any distinct identity emanating from this film.
As a prequel, The Many Saints of Newark will appease fans who will derive satisfaction from being able to enter the Soprano universe once again and enjoy the subtle easter eggs it presents. The acting is decent given the constraints of the script, Nivola excels and Gandolfini seems to be a carbon copy of his father. Nonetheless, as a stand-alone film, it is conspicuously below-average.