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‘The Many Saints of Newark’ is haunted by history

New "Sopranos" movie gave Michael Gandolfini new appreciation for his father, and the character he created

"The Many Saints of Newark" is a prequel to the celebrated TV show "The Sopranos" and stars, among others, Michael Gandolfini, son of late James Gandolfini.
"The Many Saints of Newark" is a prequel to the celebrated TV show "The Sopranos" and stars, among others, Michael Gandolfini, son of late James Gandolfini.Read moreBarry Wetcher

The Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark is a haunting movie, by design and by nature.

In every dark corner, there are ghostly vestiges of the iconic HBO series about a suburban mobster named Tony (the late James Gandolfini) whose daily beefs with his wife, children, and dangerous business rivals were the least of his problems — his most deadly adversary was his mother Livia, a maternal figure straight out of Euripides.

The cumulative stress led Tony to a therapist, but all fans were armchair analysts — Americans of all ages and walks of life (it was one of the last pre-streaming touchstone shows) would meet on Mondays to pick over details of the previous evening’s episode.

The showed ended in 2007, Gandolfini died of a heart attack in 2013, and creator David Chase, recovering from a heart attack of his own, decided to write and produce this flashback — a two-hour period piece (late ‘60s) and profile of a man named Dickie Moltisanti, deceased by the time The Sopranos series chronology commenced, but very much alive in Many Saints as a powerful wiseguy legend who is also Tony’s uncle.

Dickie (Alessandro Nivola) runs Newark’s numbers and slots racket and serves as surrogate father to teen Tony (James’ son Michael Gandolfini), who’s into football and girls but is captivated by the swagger and glamour of his connected uncle.

He’ll be a gangster if it kills him, and death looms everywhere. The movie is narrated by a murdered man, hands reach out from caskets, and we get startling appearances from Chase’s variation on Banquo’s ghost.

Perhaps the most haunting of all: Young Tony walks through the movie with what is unmistakably the face of his father. Many Saints is the first big movie role for Gandolfini, 22, and the work he put in gave him a new understanding of his father’s legacy, talent, and virtuosity.

“I felt so proud of him and what he had done. I mean, seeing what we were doing, how hard we were working, and we did this for three months and it’s exhausting, and to reflect on the fact that my father did this for years,” said Gandolfini, who was just 14 when his father died, and didn’t watch the show until he got the job. “I was able to walk away with a new understanding of him. How he really stepped up for such a long time, and gave us such a complicated character.”

Gandolfini, who stopped in Philadelphia recently with costar Nivola to discuss the movie, was obviously raised right. He spent much of the interview deflecting attention toward Nivola, who plays the story’s central character, Dickie — married to a woman who is having a hard time conceiving a child, attracted to the new young wife of his abusive father (Ray Liotta), and contending with an ambitious and increasingly ambitious lieutenant (Leslie Odom Jr.) who wonders if Black Newark really needs white mobsters to run its illegal gambling business.

It’s the same home/work push and pull that gave Tony panic attacks in the series, and it takes its toll on Dickie, but Nivola notes that writer/producer Chase is also telling a more panoramic story here — the story of Newark itself, circa 1967, beset by riots, racism, police misconduct, and violent protest.

All things that make the movie timely, in a way that surprised and alarmed the cast and crew during production.

“In our film, the riots were the catalyst for the movement of this diaspora of Italian Americans from Newark into this suburban life. The city was undergoing this dramatic demographic change in a short period of time, and that led to tension and violence that ultimately changed everything,” said the actor.

“On set, we’re doing this period piece, and we were not expecting it to be reflected in the everyday news, where we’re seeing protests and riots all across the country, with some of the same issues in play,” Nivola said. “David, and all of us, had this sense of history repeating itself, in a really depressing way.”

Well, that actually tracks — The Sopranos was never an optimistic show, nor did it have a sunny view of human nature, although it did have a very bleak sense of humor, which could be described as Greek tragedy by way of a guy (Chase) who once wrote episodes of The Night Stalker.

Nivola laughs. “The Greek thing was actually pointed out pretty much on the nose in the original script. And we shot a scene, which [Chase] cut, and it was a favorite scene of Michael and I, where [young Tony] says at one point I wish I could kill my dad, and I slap him and yell, don’t say that, God can hear you. And then he says, ‘C’mon, nobody would actually kill their father, that’s like something out of one of those [ridiculous] Greek plays,’ ” Nivola said.

Many Saints is a loose translation of Moltisanti, a way for Chase to invoke the idea of martyred figures watching over the living, the way the ghosts of Sopranos future hover over the movie.

“I think it was Michael more than anybody who was always aware of the ghosts. He had such an acute sense of how the tone of our movie and of the series were tied together,” Nivola said.

Gandolfini, for his part, said the movie’s overlapping relationships — especially Tony’s growing bond with Dickie while his dad Johnny (Jon Bernthal) is in jail — explain why adult Tony eventually worked his way up through middle management to become an effective boss.

“I think the big thing that I thought about when figuring out Tony was that you have this kind of triangle, of Livia (Vera Farmiga) and Dickie and Johnny, who all raised Tony together, and Dickie is really at the top. Because you have Johnny, who is only angry, and Livia, who is only manipulative, and Tony could be those things, but it was Dickie who showed Tony how to be multifaceted, someone who could truly succeed to the level of Tony.”

It’s the kind of character study, Nivola said, that becomes increasingly hard to fund and create in Hollywood, and only the Chase brand, he said, made it happen. “Studios don’t really make this kind of movie anymore, this sort of 70s crime drama, mid-budget studio production that used to be their bread and butter,” he said.

Film buff Gandolfini looks back even further. “It’s really more of a 1950s film noir, a really morally gray world where you have one person who hovers between good and bad, and that’s was missing from movies today. So many movies now are like, you have to fix the tesseract before it blows up the world,” said Gandolfini, taking a jab superhero genre that soaks up so much of the oxygen, talent, and money in modern Hollywood (The Many Saints of Newark opens in theaters and on HBO Max Oct. 1, opposite Venom: Let There be Carnage).

It’s the sort of thing young actors tend to say ten minutes before joining the Marvel universe. His next actual job, however, is a role in the just-announced Disappointment Boulevard, directed by Ari Aster (Hereditary) and starring Joaquin Phoenix. Nivola said he’s planning to team up again soon with Phil Morrison, who directed him years ago in the well received Junebug. The proposed new movie is a story about American folksingers, costarring Ethan Hawke.