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The garden of sin and death that is "The Many Saints of Newark"

The Many Saints of Newark

Starring Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michela De Rossi, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, Samson Moeakiola, William Ludwig, Mattea Conforti and Alexandra Intrator. Written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner. Directed by Alan Taylor. Opens Oct. 1 at the Scotiabank Theatre. 120 minutes. 14A


Peter Howell

Movie Critic

"The Many Saints of Newark" begins with a camera slowly hovering over a cemetery as an interment proceeds. It feels like any other day, business as usual, as a voiceover from a dead man tells us about the neighbourhood and its violent denizens.

It's home turf of the dysfunctional crime family we know from "The Sopranos," led by James Gandolfini's conflicted Mafia boss Tony Soprano, in David Chase's hit series that enlivened HBO's airwaves and pop culture discussions from 1999 to 2007.

Tony is in this story, which spans from 1967 to the early '70s as a film prequel to the TV series. But he's just a kid, played first by 14-year-old William Ludwig and later by 22-year-old Michael Gandolfini, son of the late Tony, who died in 2013. Gandolfini Jr. does his dad proud.

The central figure of interest in the film is actually Tony's crime mentor, Dickie Moltisanti, who is conjured by Alessandro Nivola with a blend of charm and menace. He's the "stand up guy" Tony fondly refers to in the TV series, father of Tony's close associate Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli, who is the dead man talking in the film).

We're about to find out how Dickie, who runs a numbers racket, shaped Tony and influenced events in the TV series to come. The film presumes a large knowledge of "The Sopranos," rewarding the faithful and the attentive with glimpses of young versions of familiar characters to come. It's a hangout movie, more of a pilot for a potential prequel series than a stand-alone film.

We also meet new players, including Dickie's dad "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti. Played by Ray Liotta, he's such a powerful and charismatic presence, co-writers Chase and Lawrence Konner and director Alan Taylor work him twice as hard as the rest of the characters, for reasons that will become clear.

Many dots are connected in "The Many Saint of Newark," but the dots are drops of blood, which are to a cemetery as rain is to a garden. To extend the metaphor, consider this film the fertile yet unhealthy soil from where the Sopranos and their "soldiers" sprang. Production designer Bob Shaw brilliantly evokes the look of the era — which includes the fiery race riots of the time — while a rock, r'n'b and proto-rap soundtrack captures the sounds.

Two women stand out in this tale of mostly violent men: Tony's depressed and angry mother Livia (Vera Farmiga) and Michela De Rossi's Sicilian immigrant bride Giuseppina, who has her own vision of the American Dream to pursue. They're like wildflowers growing in a graveyard, glimpses of life in a gangster's garden of sin and death. 🌓



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