Christopher Moltisanti haunts Alan Taylor’s “The Many Saints of Newark,” and not just in name (you don’t need to be too familiar with Italian to realize that “Many Saints” translates to “Moltisanti”) but in actual spirit. The film literally opens in a New Jersey graveyard, one filled with headstones boasting the names of families familiar to any seasoned “Sopranos” watcher, before settling on a discomfitingly familiar face, forever imposed on his own gravestone: Christopher Moltisanti, AKA Chrissy, the son of Dickie Moltisanti, who serves as the film’s leading man (as played by franchise newbie Alessandro Nivola).
Voiced by Michael Imperioli, who starred in the original series as the misguided if plucky young mobster, Chrissy guides us through the opening moments of the film — Chrissy! from beyond the grave! — which follows the exploits of his father and a young Tony Soprano during a pivotal period for the various members of the DiMeo crime family. Christopher isn’t even born when “Many Saints” opens, but he knows the players and the pieces, and his gimlet-eyed, gruff introduction to them is funny, comforting, and more than a bit unnerving. In short: a perfect start to this latest “Sopranos Story.”
“The Sopranos” creator (and “Many Saints” co-writer) David Chase recently told NME that the choice to dispatch Imperioli for the film’s voiceover narration “was not always how the film was going to start” and was put in place to help clear up any confusion the audience might have felt as the feature kicks off. “We first undertook it to clear up possible confusions and to help people understand where they were — where’s Newark, who are the criminals, who’s that guy,” he said.
But while that natty bit of guidance is indeed useful, Imperioli’s return also adds some incredible emotion to the film, especially as he continues to pop up throughout “Many Saints,” Chrissy again and again reaching out from the afterlife to lord over events that happened mostly before he was even born. Much of the action and emotion of the film is oriented around the relationship between Dickie and young Tony (played by both William Ludwig and, in his teenage years, Michael Gandolfini, the son of our original Tony, James Gandolfini), an uneasy but affectionate mentorship that helps explain so much of who Tony became before audiences even met him in Chase’s beloved HBO series.
It also explains so much of who Chrissy became.
In the series, Tony and Chrissy had a similar relationship to the one we see play out with Dickie and Tony, one made all the more complicated in retrospect — again, major spoiler warning if you’ve not seen “The Sopranos” or are not familiar with some of its decade-old shockers — by Chrissy’s Season 6 death at the hands of Tony himself. Part mercy killing, part reaction to years of pent-up frustrations and fears over who Chrissy is at his very core (unreliable, mercurial, and slave to his own addictions and obsessions), Chrissy’s death is heartbreaking, horrible, and the sort of thing no one — particularly Tony — can ever really get over. That Tony is never suspected of any wrongdoing — Tony killed Christopher after a terrible car accident in which he was already grievously injured — only adds to his pain and torment, emotions that are hard to shake, both by Tony and the audience, who had to carry the truth with them, just like Tony.
And while Chase might have cooked up Chrissy’s return for purely pragmatic reasons, it seems as if he had more on his mind as it unfolded: Chrissy’s narration pops up repeatedly in the film, contextualizing certain circumstances and people, while Chrissy himself (as a baby) even appears around the film’s midway point. The adult Chrissy we know so well is, of course, fresh in the audience’s mind when baby Chrissy, long desired by Dickie, finally appears on the scene. And while Dickie does not live long enough to see his only child grow up, the audience again is clued into things no one screen can possibly know: Chrissy will end up being, well, a lot like Dickie.
Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner later toy with that omniscience to startling effect. Even as a baby, Christopher exhibits a strange distaste for Tony, often crying when the good-natured teenager tries to hold him. As Tony notes, it’s as if the baby is scared of him or something, as if he has some natural aversion to him that doesn’t make sense in the moment. Oh, but it will.
Such hints to the future are rife throughout “Many Saints” — some of these winks and nods are more fun than others, and some certainly seem to exist just to make hardcore fans happy — but few of them are as unnerving as the ones meted out by Chrissy. Prequels are, by their very nature, about looking back in time and recontextualizing it in the present. That can be pleasurable (as is often the case when “Many Saints” trots out younger versions of “Sopranos” stars, particularly John Magaro, Billy Magnussen, and Samson Moeakiola), or painful (as it is whenever we see or hear Chrissy).
Fans of “The Sopranos” will immediately notice the parallels between the Dickie/Tony dynamic and the Tony/Christopher one, complicated mentorships built on affection and respect and even deep fear. It’s those bonds that made the series so special, but it was the breaking of them that made it so profound. As “The Many Saints of Newark” hastens to remind us even through the most practical of methods — voiceover narration! what a gas! — knowing how it all ends is only the beginning of the story.
A Warner Bros. release, “The Many Saints of Newark” is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
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