‘Many Saints:’ old stories and new friends

“The Many Saints of Newark’ tells the prequel story to the iconic television series “The Sopranos,” and stars Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini and Leslie Odom Jr. // Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

Our Take: 4/5 Stars

“The Sopranos” is arguably one of the most iconic television series of all time. Fans of the series will be excited to step back into the Sopranos universe with the release of “The Many Saints of Newark” on Oct. 1. Taking inspiration from “The Sopranos” creator David Chase, the film, which is a prequel to the show, adds depth to the existing characters and provides new and exciting elements to the story.

The film follows Dickie Moltisanti, played by Alessandro Nivola (“Face/Off”). Dickie, who is mentioned several times in the series, is Tony Soprano’s uncle and ultimate father figure. The film deals with Dickie’s relationship with Tony and how he shapes him into the man that audiences know from the “The Sopranos.” But despite the many references made to Dickie in the series, creator David Chase wanted a fresh approach to the character.

“When we first started filming, he [Chase] told me that I shouldn’t pay any attention to anything anyone said in the series about the character because they’re all liars,” Nivola said in a roundtable for the film. Nivola’s powerful performance as Dickie provides an emotional core to the film that is very grounded. Dickie’s character provides some interesting layering to the legend of Tony Soprano, and Michael Gandolfini (“Cherry’’), who steps into the role of Tony, plays off Nivola’s strong performance to highlight the influence that Dickie has on Tony’s development.

Set amidst the 1967 Newark race riots, the film quickly establishes a new element in both the world of “The Sopranos” and in the larger category of mob stories. While many mob stories allude to racism, very few deal with it in as outright a manner as this film does. The film jumps backwards to Tony Soprano’s youth and immerses the audience into the city’s racial tensions from the perspective of a family far removed from it. “This protest and riot happen in Newark, and all this is happening and then you get to the Soprano family and it doesn’t touch them,” said Gandolfini.

In contrast with the Soprano family’s detachment is Harold McBrayer. Harold is intensely connected to the riots and to the larger movement happening in the United States. Stepping into the role is Leslie Odom Jr. (“One Night in Miami”), who fits seamlessly into the story and provides a much-needed counterweight to Dickie.

In crafting his performance of Harold, Odom said that he “wanted to hopefully offer a character that was as psychologically rich and interesting as those they [the audience] have grown accustomed to.” And it is safe to say he succeeded. Not only does Harold provide the necessary conflict with Dickie, he also offers a strong voice as the film deals with the racial tensions of the time. “Brutal honesty” were the words used by Nivola to describe the film’s depiction of racism. Odom agrees. “Hey man,” he said, “my feeling is: do not clean it up. Not for me.”

According to Odom, the film’s honest depiction of racism creates the power of the message — a message that the audiences are supposed to hear loud and clear. “If art can be brave, the bravest thing you can do is knock out the fourth wall and let us see you live as you are,” he said. “To show us the ugly parts, because you showing me that forces me to look at the ugliness within myself.”

Another connection that this film has with its preceding series is the fact that the young Tony Soprano is played by Michael Gandolfini, the son of the late James Gandolfini, who portrayed Tony in the series. Gandolfini, an accomplished actor in his own right, spoke about the process of stepping into the role once filled by his father and the challenges and enjoyments he found when doing so. The personal aspect, he says, was not something he focused on in the day-to-day act of shooting the film. “When crafting the character, one thing I focused on was having these little bite-sized chunks,” he said. “I didn’t think too much about the macro.”

It is the little things, like the classic Tony Soprano accent and mannerisms, that brought the celebrated character to life through this different actor. In many ways, Gandolfini approached the role like any other. “I was playing Tony, I wasn’t playing James.”

But Gandolfini also discussed his feeling of pride at watching the final film for the first time. “I felt so much pride that me and him got to do it together, that I got to do this with my dad, as his son, as two Gandolfinis,’ and also as two actors,” he said.

In a lot of ways, “The Many Saints of Newark” is about guilt, about regret and about trying to do good things in bad situations. This idea, despite being told through the lens of a rather niche genre, is a universal experience. There is something very human and relatable about the story. These characters are nowhere near perfect, but like all of us, they walk a balance between good deeds and bad. This internal struggle draws audiences in and connects them to the story in a way that many films attempt, but rarely succeed, to do.

For those familiar with the series, the film provides some valuable backstories and explanations for the events of the series. For those who are just being introduced to the Soprano family, “The Many Saints of Newark” provides an excellent exposition to the series with only minimal spoilers.