• Sat. Dec 4th, 2021

How a ‘chubby kid in short pants’ became a Mob boss

Nov 3, 2021

MA, 120 minutes
Family is at the heart of every great Mafia movie, along with the vexed question of where family loyalties should lie in matters of life and death.

Francis Ford Coppola brought an operatic approach to bear on this problem in The Godfather and its sequels and Martin Scorsese took it closer to the intimate and the everyday in Goodfellas. But no one has examined the domestic lives of the Mafia more persuasively than David Chase with his series, The Sopranos.

Michael Gandolfini (left) as a teenage Tony Soprano with Alessandro Nivola as his uncle Dickie Moltisanti.

The Many Saints of Newark, Chase’s feature-length prequel to the series, continues his explorations by delving into the story of the childhood and adolescence of the series’ troubled anti-hero, Tony Soprano. With his heavy air of deliberation and the strangely soulful look in his eyes, James Gandolfini’s Tony seemed to regard his duties as the family’s chief enforcer with an unexpressed yet inescapable melancholy. He did what he had to do but the messy details of his days at the office remained strictly off-limits when he was at home with his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco) and their children.

This film, directed by series regular Alan Taylor, shows us how Tony got that way. The many saints of its ironic title are the Sopranos’ close relatives, the Moltisantis. Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s dashing uncle, takes centre stage as his mentor and surrogate father. His real father, Johnny (Jon Bernthal), spends much of his son’s childhood in jail and when he’s around, he pays the young Tony little attention. He’s too busy rolling his eyes at the ceaseless nagging his formidable wife, Livia (Vera Farmiga) dispenses in lieu of conversation.

The film begins, appropriately enough, in a graveyard, with a slice of voice-over exposition delivered by Tony’s nephew, Christopher. Fans of the series will get a particular kick out of Christopher’s sardonic allusions to the fact he’s destined to die at the hands of his Uncle Tony, who at this stage, is a chubby kid in short pants. Nonetheless, newcomers to the Soprano saga will have no difficulty tuning in. The narrative soon begins to take on the classic lines of authentic tragedy.

Like Tony in his maturity, Dickie is not altogether happy with his role as a Mafia boss. By way of atonement for the routine brutalities of his professional life he gives much of his spare time to local charities and he’s serious in his efforts to steer his young nephew in the right direction. It’s just that “right” is a concept open to interpretation.

Dickie’s own life takes an unexpected turn when his tyrannical old father, “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), returns from a trip to Italy with his new bride, Giuseppina (Michela de Rossi), who is decades younger than he is. She and Dickie are instantly attracted to one another – despite the fact they’re both married – and when the old man begins beating her up, Dickie confronts him.

Tragic heroes have fatal flaws and Dickie’s stems from his uncontrollable temper. It can suddenly transform him into a sadistic killer and leave him full of remorse afterwards. One of the script’s neatest creations is the character of Hollywood Dick’s estranged brother, Sally, also played by Liotta. Sally is serving a life sentence for killing a “made man” and has accepted his fate with serenity, having taken up a vegan diet, Zen Buddhism and jazz. He has maintained his shrewdness, however, and when Dickie starts visiting him, he immediately guesses he is after the one thing he can’t have – absolution.

Many of the series’ stalwarts appear as their younger selves, played by actors who have studied their tics, twitches and vanities and convincingly reproduced them, and a strong strain of gallows humour runs through the action as the Moltisantis embark on a feud with a rival gang of black mobsters.

Tony hovers on the edge of all this, never quite getting the whole picture and sure of only one thing – that he doesn’t want to end up like his father. But the crucial decision about the kind of man he will become is not up to him. By the time the series’ familiar theme music comes up to overlay the end credits – a masterstroke – there’s a sad inevitability to the course his future will take. This is a classic tragedy.

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