Wednesday, October 6, 2021


In 2007, David Chase’s classic New Jersey mobster drama The Sopranos left us with a last supper. Now, it returns to us with The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel. It’s nothing if not consistent—a sprawling story deeply engaged with struggles of masculinity, family, moral weight, and the agonizing dissatisfying guilt the comes from a lifetime of sin. It’s religious and contemplative, torn between atonement and destruction, the holy and profane. That it’s also a multi-generational story of America in decline, a sad pack of boomers chasing the glory of their fathers and leaving less and less opportunity or exit strategy to their children, makes it uniquely suited to chronicle its moment and prefigure ours. But it’s also, at its core, and perhaps at its most appealing, a series about a husband, a wife, their children, and extended family connections; it’s the domestic dramas set up as counterpoint and intersection with the gangster plot lines that are the glue that holds the audience’s affection together. A viewer invested in them as a family, and the accumulation of character detail and thematic concerns consistently streamed forth from that font. A reason why the sudden cut to black in the series’ final episode is so shocking—still a jolt, a chill—is that it not only amplifies the ambiguity long embedded in the show’s philosophical concerns, but denies us closure on the people who, however deeply imperfect and morally compromised, have a humanity we learned to care about. Cold comfort it may be to know the cut to black is headed for us all no matter what we do. But it’s good to know life goes on and on and on and on until then, and for others after.

I like that Chase maintains the mystery of that moment, to the extent that any continuation of the Soprano family story simply had to go back in time. For a family, and a business, to concerns with legacy and lineage, it’s still a rich vein to mine. It feels haunted by future events, an inevitability that what’s set in motion here will reverberate down through the generations. There’s preordained tragedy in the mob life, a foreshortening of life and opportunity when the family and The Family are inextricable, petty crime and petty slights in the same terrible chain of cause and effect. Many Saints finds its main character in Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a father and uncle whose absence, having long been whacked when Sopranos began, shaped some of his descendant’s actions and perspectives. Here he’s still in the prime of his life. It’s the late 60s. (Chase’s other major feature film effort, 2012’s Not Fade Away, sets its tender musical coming-of-age story against the time’s cultural upheaval.) In this new film Newark is burning. Gangsters are scheming. The world seems to be coming apart, and for the members of the interconnected Jersey crime families their underworld black market power is the thing that gives their lives structure and some sense of control. You can see why a young Tony Soprano (here played by the late, great James Gandolfini’s son Michael in a finely tuned performance) would think this time was a golden age of sorts, although the deaths and prison sentences might make one think it’s no better than his own.

This anxiety of influence as it relates to generations cycles of dysfunction and distress animates Chase’s screenplay, co-written by Lawrence Konner and directed by Alan Taylor, series' vets both. It becomes a movie about people who almost know the way to do the right thing, but, mirroring the show’s Zeno’s paradox of morality, never can get there. Here it’s Dickie, who clashes with family and rivals, gets entangled in affairs and crimes alike, and who ultimately presents himself so slickly that the more impressionable around him might see in him a reason to perpetuate what is the cause of both the family’s wealth and its doom. That Dickie is given an almost literal angel and devil dispensing advice, in the form of a father and his twin brother (in a well-differentiated dual role for Ray Liotta) emphasizes the weight of his choices, and two potential futures. (That the whole movie is narrated from beyond the grave by another character related to him—the thing literally starts floating over gravestones where we overhear ghostly monologues—gives the project that extra weight of funereal fate.) Around him is a cavalcade of character actors playing younger versions of the old guard who haunted Tony’s adulthood: his intimidating father (Jon Bernthal) and snapping mother (Vera Farmiga), his bald bespectacled—and dangerous—Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll), and young up-and-coming gangsters like Paulie (Billy Magnussen) and Silvio (John Magaro). The extra-textual sense of winking inevitability is sometimes a nudge to the fans, but is also often adds to the overarching doom that settles around the ice-blue images and the sturdy mid-century design.

The movie is a relatively brisk two hours, but rambles and expands and never quite digs in to its shuffling surfaces. There’s something uneven—at once too much and too little—about its design, tracing a standard gangster set of concerns with hits and schemes and twists, against a larger family tapestry. It slips through time a bit, and finds pockets of characterization in which to get turned around. Without the space of a season of television, the scenes of sly humor and dark juxtapositions, simple philosophizing and earnest psychologizing, take up inordinate space. Though the movie leans on its Sopranos prequel status in ways that make this particular picture sometimes incomplete, there’s something alive in its ungainly design, especially as Chase introduces Leslie Odom, Jr. as a Black associate of the mobsters. He has his own through line that criss-crosses the other plots, and serves as intriguing counterpoint and counterbalance to their privilege, as well as valuable historical context. One scene finds a hit carried out in an army recruitment center where the flummoxed solider behind the desk yelps that Vietnam’s not his fault. Another has a white man drive a car with a dead body in the passenger seat through a line of riot cops too busy pointing artillery at protestors to notice. These ideas of whose behavior is policed, and who is allowed to get away with what, is emphasized and mirrored by the story of an innocent Italian immigrant (Michela De Rossi) who is brought into the Moltisanti family and becomes part of the mob lifestyle (with all the danger that entails) even as she dutifully takes classes to improve her English and assimilate. Even here there’s a sense that the events—moments of grace, and moments of betrayal—will continue to haunt the family, casting a long shadow.

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