the one sopranos moment in the many saints of newark.
David Chase’s prequel to The Sopranos is a surprisingly normal Mafia film. It even features Ray Liotta from Good Fellas fame, as if to say, look we are just like all the other Mafia films. Liotta turns in not one but two nice character portrayals in the film, but overall The Many Saints of Newark has little heavenly or goodly about it. The movie lacks almost all the weirdness that made The Sopranos so wonderful as a series. In particular, the movie does not emphasize the ways in which conventional American life might often lean uncomfortably closer to the abhorrent activities of American gangsters than most want to admit. That was one of many innovations and insights of the original series, yet it is little explored here.
Even the camera work and filming choices are different. While the camera often crept in for tight shots and crowded intimacy in The Sopranos, in The Many Saints of Newark everything is distanced. The film arrives in a sepia veneer of history instead of appearing way too close for comfort. This is a movie that wants to announce it is a historical epic rather than a show that kept leaping out of the television set (remember those) into everyday life during turn-of-the-twenty-first century America. Even the playful “prequelity” of the show—John Magaro’s spot-on interpretation of Stevie Van Zandt’s Silvio Dante, now as a young man; Livia Soprano’s miserable crankiness; young Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri already concerned about his clothes getting mussed up; Junior’s sociopathic streak; Janice’s stoner vibe; or having Christopher Moltisanti narrate the film from the grave—merely gives The Many Saints of Newark a nostalgic tinge instead of the dramatic immediacy of the original series.
That all said, there is one moment toward the very end of the new film that elevates it to Sopranos level. It comes through the acting of Michael Gandolfini, and it serves as both an homage to his late father and as a moment of the captivating quality of the original show. Sitting at the counter in Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionery, which was where the iconic last scene of The Sopranos was filmed and were Tony maybe (we’ll never know!) met his end, Michael Gandolfini waits for his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti (Christopher’s father and Tony’s sort-of-mentor), to meet him (his uncle never arrives). A milkshake is half empty before young Tony Soprano’s interlaced fingers. His football varsity letter jacket bunches up around his arms. Gandolfini bites his lip, hunches his shoulders forward, takes a deep breath, darts his eyes around. It’s an expression lifted straight from his father’s portrayal of the grown Tony Soprano, and it is thrilling acting. We sense Tony’s hulking mass to come in the future, his emerging sense of his need to assert his own place in the world, and his swirl of emotions—disappointment, sadness, resentment, rage, cold reasoning, determination, confusion.
This is the Tony we know. The facial expression and body language says this character is at once expecting someone to scold him (maybe Livia) and that he is leaving his adolescence behind. The acting almost singlehandedly connects past to future. Ruefully, in dread, we know, it will lead right back to a booth at that same restaurant. Gandolfini stands up quickly, then pauses at the door. Above the restaurant lettering on the glass, the camera zooms in. We gaze at his face in the doorway as the camera lingers, framing the intensity of his facial expression—the lip curled, the eyes shifting to the side, the sigh, the concentrated mix of emotions.
It’s a more subtle moment by miles than anything else in this oddly plain film. The camera pans back as Frank Sinatra sings “Whatever Happened to Christmas?” We see the bear-like silhouette of Tony—Michael, but almost also maybe is it James Gandolfini?—against the light streaming into Holsten’s. The figure hovers between son and father in a film all about a son seeking a father (and an acting son who lost his father, and is now playing his father when the father was his age). We watch Tony on the cusp of becoming what we know awaits him.
One only wishes that David Chase and the other makers of The Many Saints of Newark had started with a scene like this one and sustained the mood. Maybe then we could, once again, spend some time with this show of ours.