Although Chase can’t escape the televisual genesis of Many Saints, which unfolds like a two-hour flashback episode of the greatest show ever made (hardly a bad thing), it is still an enticingly cinematic affair.
Left to right: Corey Stoll, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Michael Gandolfini, Gabriella Piazza and Alessandro Nivola. Photo: Warner Bros)
The film opens with a fleeting voiceover narration, introduced among an auditory haze of spectral whispers in a graveyard. It reminds this critic of the gloomy, transcendental atmosphere George Saunders crafted for his historical ghost novel Lincoln in the Bardo.
We won’t reveal the voice in question – only that they died by the hand of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the Italian-American mob leader who popularised the antihero archetype in TV. The voice casts a fug of foreboding: the inevitability of bleak, unceremonious death.
But don’t expect the mobster formerly known as Antonio to have a dominating role in Many Saints. He enters in and out of view, observing from a distance as a child and through adolescence – digesting the dynamics of family and Family. Michael Gandolfini (the actual son of James) plays the teenage Tony and beautifully captures the future leader at a moral crossroads in his life. Happily, too, it’s not merely an impersonation of The Sopranos’ iconic performance.
The same can be said for all the returning characters and their younger depictions by Vera Farmiga (Livia Soprano), Corey Stoll (Junior Soprano), and Billy Magnussen (Paulie Gualtieri). This is with some exception for John Magaro, who can’t avoid the caricatural nature of Silvio Dante’s nods and frowns.
The main story follows Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), who’s mentioned in the series only as the father of hothead mobster Christopher, as well as being a paternal influence on Tony. Dickie’s a compelling presence, another antihero with dubious tastes and vices he would pass on to Tony.
However, despite being a despicable, hedonistic person, he has denser moral scruples. As the film proceeds he tries to come to terms with the immorality he inflicts upon others, chiefly in the Family business. Nivola plays him with such subtle confusion and inner turmoil, wearing a jovial mask that gradually begins to slip.
Leslie Odom Jr as Harold. Photo: Warner Bros.
Much like the series, Many Saints swerves away from plot – simply dropping into its characters’ everyday lives. The newly cinematic structure might’ve tempted Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner to strap the stories into a more convenient narrative. But they keep it in the multi-character family, maintaining the mundanity of evil that made The Sopranos so watchable.
The Newark race riots (1967) is an event that comes and goes, but its impact billows throughout. One Night in Miami’s Leslie Odom Jr nearly steals the film as Harold, a sympathetic but violent Black criminal who watches the chaos reign on the streets. The riot scenes purge with burning, bloody, bullet-ridden reality – made all the more searing when you realise Chase actually witnessed them in his twenties.
At times, despite Chase’s insistence, you have to wonder why Many Saints wasn’t made into an HBO limited series. There are so many vivid characters who enter and drift around or away. Is less really more? It’s hard to argue when the less is really quite good. And like the empty, existential feeling after 86 episodes of The Sopranos, The Many Saints of Newark leaves you wanting and not wanting more.
The Many Saints of Newark will be in cinemas from Wednesday 22 September.
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22 Sep 21 – 22 Sep 22, IN CINEMAS
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