“The Sopranos” defined modern television, ushering in the era of premium television: shows with shorter seasons, tighter stories, and higher budgets. In essence, “The Sopranos” showed that television can be as good as the movies. Now, the show, which aired its last episode in 2007, has a previous film, titled “The Many Saints of Newark,” which hit theaters and on HBOMax on October 1.
The plot follows Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) and his operations within the DiMeo crime family. His father, Hollywood Dick (Ray Liotta) – the world of the Sopranos always has weird names – brings home a woman named Giuseppina from Italy (Michela De Rossi). A conflict erupts between father and son as Dickie falls in love with Giuseppina.
Meanwhile, a black family associate named Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) grows angry at the racism and exclusion that defines his relationship with Italians. Part of the film is set against the backdrop of the Newark Riots of 1967, five days of civil unrest sparked by the arrest and beating of a black cab driver. Harold begins his own rebellion, setting up a black criminal network to compete with the Italian Mafia.
The tension between Harold and Dickie carries most of the story, while a young Tony Soprano (the protagonist of “The Sopranos”) lurks in the background. Tony admires Dickie, while his father is largely absent and his mother (a precisely paranoid Vera Farmiga) succumbs to mental illness. As a child, Tony was played by William Ludwig, until Michael Gandolfini (son of the first Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini) took the stage to play the teenager Tony. Like many teenagers, Tony plays soccer and wants to go to college, but he also runs a sports betting network with kids at school. The last half of the film plays with the dramatic question: where will Tony Soprano end up? Will he become a gangster?
The public, of course, already knows the answer to this question, and there’s a powerful idea at the heart of it all: Can a gangster really repent? Dickie is trapped in his own crimes, desires and sins. Young Tony has some hope, but we know he’s destined for the same life. This is not the American dream; this is the American cycle.
Nonetheless, each of these ideas was explored better in the series than in the movie. There are moments that are visually powerful, but they never have enough time to breathe and give them weight in the story.
A scene from the show’s first season, in which Tony sees his father shoot a man, is recreated in the film. In the series, the scene is heartbreaking because it gives the context for an entire episode. In another scene, young Tony watches his father being taken to prison. Present Tony talks about it with his therapist, Dr. Melfi. We learn the story of his father. We see how Tony’s son could repeat his ingrained behaviors. In the film, the same scene and sequence of events barely have a moment to land with viewers before the film switches to a scene from the Newark riots.
During the riot scenes, viewers are treated to moments of heartfelt horror as the characters watch their city burn down. These moments in the film are compelling and have rich symbolic connections to the present, but they feel detached from the rest of the film’s narrative. Buried under this rambling plot is a film about the struggle of black characters, which has always lingered on the fringes of the series. However, as the film has no room to flesh out complex themes, the subject of relations between the black and Italian communities remains under-explored.
Younger versions of many regulars of The Sopranos appear, but they never play too big a role in the story. The thing that most ties the film to the series is a narration by Christopher (Michael Imperioli). The storytelling, however, doesn’t seem effective as Christopher’s character is so peripheral to the film.
The creative team that brought “Saints” to life are largely the same as those who created “The Sopranos”. The film was written by David Chase, the series creator, and Lawrence Konner, a regular screenwriter of the series, and directed by Alan Taylor, a frequent director of the series. But despite this continuity, he never quite captures the heights of “The Sopranos”.
The writing of the film is its weak point. It looks like TV: it’s loose and jumps between plots. There is never the current, evolving dramatic hook of a film, and instead the viewer is left with the feeling of a writer juggling half a dozen thematic arcs without quite knowing where they are. are going. This style of writing works well on TV – watch any season of “The Sopranos” – but it’s too much, too fast when crammed over two hours.
“Saints” is smart enough to be more than just a tribute to the “Sopranos”, but it is not well enough crafted to refine its own story. The movie has something to say and powerful visuals, but it doesn’t know how to be a movie. While “The Sopranos” made film for television, “Saints” fails to translate the same world to the big screen.
Jacob Silberman-Baron can be contacted at [email protected]