By Emily Rosenberg
Judging by stereotype – with my flowery dresses, pink accessories, and almond milk iced coffees, you may not expect me to be the first walking into “The Sopranos” prequel on its opening night.
But, clutching my freshly built owl Build-A-Bear, I enjoyed my first movie-going since the pandemic began, and boy is there a lot to unpack.
“The Many Saints of Newark” is a prequel film to the record-breaking series “The Sopranos,” which followed the New Jersey Mafia family, and the highs/lows of boss Tony Soprano, his wife and kids, his nephew Christopher Moltasanti, and other members of the family who are released from jail.
In the show, Christopher’s father, Dicky, has been dead since the ’80s when Chris was only 3 years old. It is unknown who killed him or what he was like except that he was more of a father figure to Tony than Tony’s own dad who was in prison for most of his formative years.
“Many Saints” follows the years leading up to Dicky’s hit, who, unsurprisingly is just as sinful as Tony is as boss as he screws his dad’s wife and slowly scandalizes his nephew through his unforgiving murder and crime. Young Tony Soprano is played by the late James Gandolfini’s son Michael Gandolfini, as a growing boy who at the time’s biggest crime was stealing a beer from his dad.
The writing is excellent at capturing Tony’s innocence and naivete. Throughout, it is difficult to believe he will become the abusive father and murderer he is in the series as he goes around as a teenager trying to score some nips with Carmela or when he throws away a gift from his uncle Dicky.
Despite being a prequel to one of the most successful series of all time, it does not rely too much on nostalgia and instead hits us with punchy references that if you’re chewing your popcorn too loud you might miss them.
It, however, manages to sneak in a joke about Tony having the makings of a varsity athlete, a classic “Sopranos” meme. And from the curtain call we’re hit with a nostalgia rush as Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher in the series, narrates a mafia funeral – a motif seen throughout the film.
A highlight is Leslie Odom Jr.’s performance as Harold McBrayer, an ex-hit man for Dicky who gets fed up and starts a side operation to screw him over. While I admit the side operation he ran did not particularly engage my attention as much as the Moltisantis’ scenes, Odom’s rendition of a mafia villain is transformative, dynamic, and empowering. The only thing wrong about it is there is no sexy villain ballad, but I get that we’re not in 2016 anymore.
The other saint, Alessandro Violanti, masters a raunchy, ruthlessly violent Dicky, playing him like a childless Tony Soprano with a soft spot for his nephew. With his charm, I found myself aching for Chris who never met his father, while scenes between Violanti and Gandolfini made me think “ahhh so that’s where Tony got all his sass.”
If I had to take points off, it would be for the time wasted on lustful, misogynistic love-making scenes. Though it could be my personal preference, it felt as though they did not add much to the story, and I kept hoping they’d cut back to the plot, as I hid my poor stuffed owl’s eyes away from the obscenity.
But if none of that convinces you, go just for the final scene. Just as “The Sopranos” series is notoriously known for its iconic ending where it cuts to black for nearly a minute, the movie wraps up with an equally satisfying statement that’ll have you leaving the theater in absolute awe.
Even those who haven’t seen the show will appreciate the mafia lore and fine-crafted story writer David Chase, who has 251 Primetime Emmy nominations, can cook up. My friend who had only seen half of the first season was quaking equally as much as I was.
“The Many Saints of Newark” sets itself aside from other mafia classics by fleshing out an ugly, compelling story of humanity, capitalism, and family love that is not just entertaining, but relatable and existential. This is what made “The Sopranos” so popular, and what will cement this film as one of the best of 2021.
A – Got yourself another Mafia Classic