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The Many Saints of Newark is in UK cinemas from September 22. 

The weight of expectations doesn’t crush The Many Saints of Newark, but it’s at its strongest when far removed from The Sopranos, to which it is a semi-prequel. Set in two distinct time periods, the summer of 1967 and a longer stretch in the early 1970s, the film has a broader social canvas, and its subject is transformation of a kind no single Sopranos episode managed to capture, specifically concerned with racism, ethnicity, and the pattern of American life. In the TV series racism was a fact of life among the exclusively Italian-American main characters; as it is in Many Saints, too, but the film presents a change in relations, as the Italian-American community moves out of Newark in the aftermath of one of the era’s biggest riots, with – ironically – deracinating consequences for the integrity of La Cosa Nostra: “this thing of ours”, consequences that were part of the show’s rich thematic tapestry.

The film’s protagonist is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Christopher Moltisanti’s father, a glamorous, mid-level mobster who runs the numbers racket – low-stakes illegal gambling – in North Jersey, part of the same crime family as Johnny and Corrado Soprano, and “uncle” to Johnny’s son, Tony. Most of the family will have nothing to do with their Black neighbours, but some of Dickie’s runners are Black, including Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), putting Dickie closer to the colour line. The riots of July 1967, provoked by police racism, are largely external to the film’s characters, but they prompt or intensify a change in Harold, and after the time-jump he – and other Black gangsters – begin to assert themselves against the Italian-Americans. After the same time jump, Johnny Soprano, who returns from a spell in prison to see that a Black family has moved in down the street, uproots his family into the suburbs.

The texture of 1960s Newark is obsessively recreated, as in Philip Roth’s novels, including the sounds – hippy music in an industrial city. If The Sopranos takes place over a great swathe of New Jersey, locations connected only by car, as in the opening credits, the first half of Many Saints plays out in closeknit urban Newark, where nothing is truly secret from the community. One could wish for a stronger sense of geography, of how physical proximity and ethnic division went together. In early Sopranos episode Down Neck (which got its title from a Newark district), Tony’s mother Livia tells him that if he misses the school bus, he’ll have to walk through the “coloured neighbourhood”, a line which vividly does what the film’s meticulous set design cannot do alone.

Many Saints begins with Dickie’s father (Ray Liotta) bringing a young second wife, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) from Italy to the US. Their linked fates leave Dickie suffering a malaise not unlike the one in which Tony begins The Sopranos; and as we know from the series, he comes to a violent end. In the film his death has a tragic irony, coming after he perceives the moral cost of his actions, but before he has stopped going through with them; but Many Saints, being “A Sopranos Story”, cannot leave it at that.

Vera Farmiga and Jon Bernthal as Livia and Johnny Soprano in The Many Saints of Newark
Vera Farmiga and Jon Bernthal as Livia and Johnny Soprano
© Warner Bros

Dickie’s story is bound up with young Tony’s, because Dickie, more than Johnny or “Uncle Junior” Corrado, is a father figure, and ultimately the chief agent of Tony’s corruption; but it is here that the film pushes itself out of shape to conform with what we already know, marring what would be a better ending without the Sopranos baggage. We know that Tony, played in the 1967 scenes by William Ludwig, then (touchingly) by Michael Gandolfini, will become a mob boss; we also know he might not have been, and if anything Many Saints shows him well on his way to becoming a civilian. In his from-beyond-the-grave voiceover, Christopher reckons that Tony became “half-a-pussy”, i.e. less Italian, because of Johnny’s decision to move out of the city. But Dickie’s death causes a nonsensical, last-minute conversion to crime – because it had to happen some time.

We already know Tony’s story. We know Junior thought he “never had the makings of a varsity athlete”, and gain nothing from hearing it said in the present tense. We know him in particular through his relationships with women – mother, wife, daughter, sister, therapist, goomahs – but except for Livia (played by Vera Farmiga), all of these ‘saints’ are men.