As a T.V series, The Sopranos was always preoccupied with ghosts. The Many Saints of Newark, in perhaps its most creative sequence, begins its story in a New Jersey cemetery. The camera pans from gravestone to gravestone, as we hear the murmurings from each interred inhabitant, narrating the banal minutiae of their lives. We hear these murmurings only in snapshot, the same way we might hear the conversation of a passing stranger in the street or at a busy restaurant.
The ghosts in The Sopranos do not exist primarily in the literal sense; for the most part, they reside in the living, breathing characters themselves, both in the guilt amassed in a life paid for in bloodshed, and in how these characters become living ghosts in their own lives. They are intensely preoccupied with their own insecurities, forever returning to some past trauma in their psyche, never finding peace or resolution.
Indeed, they become like passive spectators in their own existence, bearing witness to their sins again and again, powerless to do anything to prevent them. Unlike most characters in popular fiction, they do not inhabit a linear arc in which there is a beginning, middle and end; they move in endless, agonising circles.
In the spirit of this strife, the main protagonist of this story, Dickie Moltisanti, is caught in a private quest for absolution. Like many characters in Many Saints, he is a murderer, but he convinces himself that in accruing enough good deeds, he will be absolved. In an act of almost cartoony charity, he volunteers as a coach for the blind children’s baseball team; he brings gifts to relative in jail; he dotes on his mistress. But he will never receive absolution. Just as young Anthony Soprano, the teenage incarnation of the T.V show’s protagonist, will never receive the approval of his mother, though he attempts to assuage her mania by procuring her antidepressants. “I never could please my mother,” says the adult Tony in season six of the show. And so it’s business as usual.
In perhaps the film’s most impressive portrayal, actress Vera Farmiga, best known for her role as a paranormal detective in the horror franchise, The Conjuring, is absolutely electric as Livia Soprano, Tony Soprano’s ice queen of a mother. Unlike many of the other portrayal in Many Saints, which, though faithfully re-rendered, sadly do not offer much in the way of new insight into old characters, Farmiga’s portrayal shows us another side of Livia.
In one of the film’s most moving scenes, an adolescent Tony relates his most treasured memory to his school guidance counsellor, one in which his mother, in a moment of unprecedented tenderness, comforted him during a storm and read his favourite bedtime story. When the counsellor recounts this memory to Livia, the ice thaws, Livia cries silently in a moment of sincere emotion.
In the next scene, she treats her son with kindness; she makes him his favourite breakfast, seemingly resolved to be a more compassionate mother. Yet by the end of the scene, she has reverted back to her old ways, ranting and raving at her son. Like every other character, she is powerless to prevent herself from falling back into the same toxic cycles.
And therein lies the problem with Many Saints as a prequel: surely if there is any merit in a prequel at all, it’s that we as audience get to see how our favourite characters travelled from point A (who they were before the series started) to point B (who they are at the start of the series). But, for better or worse, the characters in The Sopranos universe simply do not develop in this way.
The Tony in The Sopranos is fixated on the same trauma as the teenage Tony in Many Saints, and the same can be said for his toxic mother. The result is that fans of the series are not offered anything they didn’t know already, and new viewers, perhaps just looking to lose themselves for two hours in a good gangster flick, are not given the kind of resolution that, for many, brings a cinematic experience to a satisfying conclusion (think how in Scorsese’s Goodfella’s Ray Liotta’s character goes from being an aspiring gangster to a repenting informant in the space of two hours).
It has often said that The Sopranos successfully brought big screen artistry to the small screen. It is ironic, then, that in bringing those same qualities back to the big screen, it mostly fails to provide ample justification for its own existence. Still, as an avid Sopranos fan myself, I enjoyed spending time with these characters again.
The new actors do an admirable job of emulating their older counterparts down to the most minuscule idiosyncrasies (Billy Magnussen, in a memorable turn as a young Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri, even manages to capture his character’s highly idiosyncratic manner of pointing his finger.) Director, Alan Taylor, captures the period details of the mob in its heyday so viscerally, you can practically smell the Brylcreem.
If, like me, you are a fan of the series, you’ll find plenty to enjoy, but as Tony reminds us in another line from the show’s sixth season, “‘remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation”.
Trips down memory lane can amuse for an hour or so, but those that fail to shed new light on the present may be doomed to obsolescence.