This Must Be the Place

Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

24 August

 

The Mainz pogrom, 1349

In the 14th century, the bubonic plague – aka the Black Death – killed between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe’s population (20-30 million people) in the course of about six years. It arrived from Asia in 1346 and ran rampant. No one knew what the cause of it was, but one of the theories was that it was God’s way of showing his displeasure with humanity, either for waging war constantly (the 100 Years War was ten years in), failing to drive the Muslim out of the Holy Land, or, casting about for any handy excuse, for allowing the Jews to live unassimilated in Christian lands. This last was seized upon in Mainz, home of Europe’s largest Jewish community, in 1349, when the Jews were attacked by an angry mob. The Jews fought back, killing maybe 200 of their attackers, but they were eventually overwhelmed and 6,000 of them were burnt at the stake. The plague continued.

 

 

 

This Must Be the Place (201, dir: Paolo Sorrentino)

Italian maestro Paolo Sorrentino’s English language debut was seen as something of a disappointment when it debuted in 2011. This must partly be because it seems to be offering one sort of film and instead delivers another.
The film it seems to be offering can be summed up in the many shots of its star, Sean Penn, in goth wig and smeared make-up, like Robert Smith of the Cure after a few weeks on a Hollywood paleo diet. A film that’s going to poke maudlin fun at pop culture. And for a while it does. We meet Cheyenne, the exiled pop star Penn plays, in his Ireland residence, being waited on by a comely assistant. It’s Eve Hewson, the daughter of U2’s Bono, which only reinforces the notion that pop culture is what this film is all about. Cheyenne drifts about, not doing particularly much, offering make-up advice unasked to a gaggle of women in a lift (always put some powder on before applying lippie, he counsels), behaving exactly as you’d expect a rich, indulged but essentially harmless man to behave who’s come to the end of his career without quite realising it – “Why is Lady Gaga?” he asks in exasperation at one humorous point, perhaps sensing that for him it really is all over.
Cheyenne’s character established, Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello then throw this least likely contender for Charles Bronson’s T shirt off on a Death Wish revenge jaunt, after Cheyenne’s father dies in New York and the withdrawn muso realises that the man who destroyed him in Auschwitz is still alive and kicking. The film suddenly changes direction, transforming into a picaresque road movie in which Cheyenne meets one oddball after another, though he himself remains the still centre in a performance that’s a sustained bravura one note fugue. Is Sorrentino overtly referencing David Byrne’s True Stories – a picaresque journey in oddball sauce? Probably, and here’s Byrne playing himself in one of the first encounters that Cheyenne has as he makes his way across the US in hangdog pursuit of what must be the last missing Nazi, surely.
You might have expected Sorrentino to become less arthouse for his English language debut but instead he’s gone the other way, telling his story through the rhythms of his editing and his colour palette even more than he had in his previous film Il Divo, his spectacular biopic about Italian political eminence Giulio Andreotti. His camera here is spectacular too, so elegantly gliding that it actually distracts attention from the story, which is sliding from the superficial to the profound as Cheyenne makes his steady way towards his quarry, one weird meeting at a time. Will he find this old Auschwitz guard? If so, what will a meek retired goth do with him? What sort of revenge is it appropriate to exact? Is revenge even the right way to go? Sorrentino keeps all the options in play to the last moment, his final shot of Cheyenne doing rubber-burning 360 degree donuts in his station wagon a grand, operatic finish to a film that started out more like a hooky pop song.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Sean Penn’s performance
  • The cast includes Harry Dean Stanton and Frances McDormand
  • Luca Bigazzi’s remarkable cinematography
  • Because Sorrentino is one of the greatest directors alive

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

This Must Be the Place – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Family Friend

Giacomo Rizzo and Laura Chiatti in The Family Friend

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

9 May

 

First recorded appearance of Mr Punch, 1662

On this day in 1662, Navy Board administrator Samuel Pepys went to Covent Garden, London, where he enjoyed “an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw…”. The show was by a Pietro Gimonde from Bologna, and Pepys’s mention of it in his famous diary is the first record we have of Mr Punch. Today, Punch is a glove puppet, but back then he was a string marionette called Puncinello or Pulcinella or Pulliciniello, a character derived from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Then, as now, Punch was characterised by his pot belly, his hook nose, his hunchback and his protruding chin. He was a thug and a liar, with a comical gait and a squawking chicken voice (his name might derive from pulcino, the Italian for chicken). Then as now he carried a big stick (the slapstick) which he would use to beat up other members of the production – his wife, Joan (later Judy), or even his child. Characters come and go in a Punch and Judy show, but Mr and Mrs Punch are a constant, the baby is almost always there. So, more often than not, is the crocodile who steals Mr Punch’s sausages (requiring much use of the stick to get them back). Other regulars include the Devil, Toby the dog (nowadays often the puppet master’s real dog), Pretty Polly, the Scaramouch, the Skeleton, the Blind Man, Jack Ketch the hangman (whom Punch inevitably hangs), and a Policeman. Mr Punch survives because he is a figure of anarchy, a lord of misrule, and his simple show is infinitely adaptable. And because, in the end, Mr Punch, is properly outrageous, a necessary corrective to the almost relentless moralising of most other fictional forms.

 

 

 

The Family Friend (2006, dir: Paolo Sorrentino)

An Italian family, short of money for their daughter’s wedding, turn to a “friend” for help. A smalltime money lender who lives in abject filth with his incapacitated mother, Geremia de Geremei is a hideous squat character, a Mr Punch in all but name, who proceeds to extract the maximum amount of interest he can out of the loan. Except his interest is carnal more than financial, and the thing he’s most interested in is the bride herself. Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to The Consequences of Love is an exercise in the comedy of the grotesque, with Geremia an exquisitely turned malevolent buffoon – the stupid arm cast, the horrible hairdye, the Gollum-esque walk, the vile manners, the lust after young flesh. Which brings us to the 180 degree counterpart, Rosalba – “white rose” in English – played by Laura Chiatti as 50 per cent ice maiden, 50 per cent volcano, with Sorrentino doing everything in his considerable power to make her look like the most ravishing woman on earth. No wonder poor thuggish Geremia’s head is turned, and this monstrous gothic character is soon hurling himself on the rocks of desire and, worse, falling deeply in love with this surely unattainable paragon. Sorrentino really goes to town on Geremia, spending so much time setting up his repellent character that he slightly neglects his actual plot, leaving the last third of the film to cover a lot of ground in a very short time. Add to this the fact that Sorrentino’s characters seem to be slightly stunned by life – as they were in The Consequences of Love – and indifference is always just on the horizon. As compensation we have the performances of the two leads, and Sorrentino’s jaw-dropping stylishness, all swooping cameras, beautiful composition and deliberate references to Fellini, the entirely appropriate wrapping for a film that is about beauty and ugliness, love and loss, youth and age.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The beautiful cinematography by Luca Bigazzi
  • The perfect performances by Giacomo Rizzo and Laura Chiatti
  • A surprisingly funny film
  • One for Fellini geeks

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Family Friend – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Great Beauty

Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella in The Great Beauty

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 April

 

Romulus founds Rome, 753BC

On this day in 753BC, one of the great capitals of world civilisation was founded, or so the story goes. Rome, city of the Caesars, was founded by Romulus, who along with Remus was one of the twin sons of Rhea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa (present day Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope has his summer residence). The father of the twins was either Mars, the god of war, or possibly Hercules, the demi-god son of Zeus. Either way, Rhea Silvia’s sons become problematical for her once Numitor’s brother Amulius seizes power from Numitor, and Romulus and Remus end up abandoned on the banks of the River Tiber, where they are famously suckled by a wolf, until a shepherd finds them and rears them. According to this worldview, nobility passing along bloodlines, so the brothers are natural leaders and, once they discover the truth of their origin, they kill the man who abandoned them and set about founding a city of their own. The twins quarrel over the precise location of this new city and, heads being hot, Remus ends up dead. Romulus names the city after himself. This foundational myth, of Romulus and Remus, has always had to co-exist with another – that the city was founded by descendants of Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan war. Recent archaeological evidence suggests the city may be older than either story implies.

 

 

 

The Great Beauty (2013, dir: Paolo Sorrentino)

La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s 1960 film which The Great Beauty bookends, starts with the sight of a giant statue of Jesus being airlifted out of Rome. Message: godlessness. The Great Beauty starts with the firing of a cannon. Message: boom. Director Paolo Sorrentino then drops us into a rooftop party, the music pounding, the beautiful women dancing, buff guys strutting, people of all ages, heights, colours and degrees of comeliness. And all dressed fabulously, all glamorous, all moisturised. It’s a brilliantly co-ordinated display of moneyed, honeyed Roman excess set to a pumping Euro-house beat. And in the middle of it all, grinning like a man who has it all, is Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella. This is Gambardella’s 65th birthday party and this is his night. He’s still virile enough to enjoy life, with enough money to paper over any cracks that time has caused. Smug.
The Great Beauty doesn’t make specific reference to La Dolce Vita, but in Fellini’s earlier film we have followed Marcello Mastroianni as a novelist who has become a celebrity journalist and lost his soul in the process. In The Great Beauty, Gambardella, we are told, is a novelist who has spent a lifetime as a journalist. He has never written a second book to build on the promise of the first. And over the two hours or so of Sorrentino’s film, we see why – the women, the soirees, the guiltless sex, the decadent art, the exquisite clothes and the endless gossip. There are even Botox evenings, when the wealthy line up to have evidence of their years injected away. I’ve been led astray by all this, he says in so many words to his cleaner, pretty much the only person Jep is honest with. And then suddenly he is at the funeral of a young man who really shouldn’t have died young. He’s helping carry his casket, in fact, when the emotional logjam breaks and he realises… actually we’re not quite sure what he realises. Perhaps that he’s been a fool. Perhaps that he just has enough time and energy left to work on something more meaningful than entertainment. In flashback we see young Jep – he looks remarkably like Mastroianni – and a lost love. Is she the Great Beauty of the title. Is Rome? Or is la grande bellezza like la dolce vita, a lifestyle so attractive that it has turned the heads of even the clergy?
Like the Devil giving Christ the “all this could be yours” tour while tempting him in the desert, Sorrentino doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing us the garden of earthly delights. This really is one of the most sumptuous films ever made, with every shot a display of deliberate cinematic excess. Why move when you can glide? Why track when you can whoosh into the air first? Even the Steadicam shots are balletic. The music, too, is gorgeous, a mix of the sacred (Tavener, Pärt, David Lang) and the profane (Bob Sinclar and Raffaella Carrà’s pumping Far l’Amore), and it does sonically what Servillo and Sorrentino are offering us on the screen – the sight a doomed man glimpsing redemption, as they did in One Man Up, The Consequences of Love and even to a certain extent in Il Divo. But never like this. If you haven’t seen it, prepare to be amazed.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Winner of the 2014 Oscar for best foreign language movie
  • The latest fruit of director Sorrentino and actor Servillo’s collaboration
  • Luca Bigazzi’s breathtaking cinematography
  • The soundtrack – in particular David Lang’s choral piece I Lie

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Great Beauty aka La Grande Bellezza – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Films of Paolo Sorrentino

Sabrina Ferilli and Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty

 

Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) is a portrait of Rome through the eyes of a world weary writer. It’s being hailed as Sorrentino’s La Dolce Vita and stars Sorrentino’s Marcello Mastroianni, Toni Servillo. It’s close to a masterpiece in other words, making this a good time to take a look at the career of Italy’s best film-maker right now. Firmly in the tradition of the 1960s generation of Fellini and Visconti, yet clearly his own man too, Sorrentino’s films are intelligent, engaged, stylish, beautifully made and intriguing – they’ve got the lot, in short.

 

 

 

One Man Up (2001)

Sorrentino’s debut feature also saw him team up with Toni Servillo for the first time, with Servillo playing an ageing crooner whose nightly ritual of sing-snort-shag is brought to a premature end when he’s caught having sex with an underage girl. Meanwhile in a parallel world of storytelling and despair, we follow a footballer whose assured future of playing and then coaching is brought to a premature end by injury. Transmuting these earthbound stories is Sorrentino’s approach – dream sequences, ballerinas, fish. Though not entirely satisfying, it’s an unusual Fellini-tinged debut which marked out Sorrentino as a man to watch.

One Man Up – at Amazon (no English subtitles)

 

The Consequences of Love (2004)

We’re following Toni Servillo again, who plays a mysterious and very quiet man who lives alone in a Swiss hotel, where he seems to be slo-mo-ing towards death with an entirely uneventful life punctuated by a regular delivery of cash and a regular injection of heroin. Meanwhile, an employee at the hotel (played by Olivia Magnani, granddaughter of Anna) has half an eye for him, an eye that might offer him a chance of life again. Or will it? From the opening shot, Sorrentino’s cool – in look, mood, lighting, style – and very Italian version of film noir is entirely gripping. That we’ve no idea what’s going on until the film is nearly over only makes Sorrentino’s triumph all the more complete.

The Consequences of Love – at Amazon

 

The Family Friend (2005)

We’re deep in a Fellini-esque world of grotesque in Sorrentino’s hugely ironical and highly digressive film about the “family friend”, a money lender who uses his financial heft to secure access to young female flesh. And what female flesh Sorrentino has assembled – take one look at Laura Chiatti and whistle “mamma mia”. And counterpointed against this female beauty is the figure of Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo), the ageing old lecher with dyed hair, a Gollum-esque walk, a wheedling voice. As with The Consequences of Love, Sorrentino creates a world populated by people who seem to be stunned by life, an absurd overheated world of farce run through a refrigerator.

 The Family Friend – at Amazon

 

Il Divo (2008)

Sorrentino’s political drama about Giulio Andreotti must be the best drama about a politician that’s been made for decades, possibly ever. Toni Servillo plays the reptilian Andreotti, the first prime minister after democracy was restored in 1946 and a politician who kept high office until the 1990s, and influence until he died in May 2013. It is the story of a modern Italian politician as a direct scheming descendant of the Borgias, a goodfellas story that manages to spill the beans on the how and who of Italian corruption in high places but does it with an operatic style so heady with gorgeous technique that the technique threatens to overwhelm its subject. Except that its subject is so superabundantly crooked that he can take it.

Il Divo – at Amazon

 

This Must Be the Place (2011)

Sorrentino’s first English language film saw him getting Sean Penn to dress up like Robert Smith of the Cure to play an ageing goth rocker whose round of self-absorption and tax exile in Ireland (where he is attended to by Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono) is broken by his decision to become a Nazi hunter. If that sounds odd enough as a set-up, this very peculiar road movie (stopping off for a song by David Byrne, whose True Stories is clearly a model), delivered in flat monotone by Penn throughout, eventually builds towards a feverish climax in which the good guys appear to be being painted as cruel and vengeful and the old Nazi they’ve tracked down is used as a receptacle for the milk of human kindness. Revenge is a dish best served not at all seems to be Sorrentino’s idea, in a return to some of themes and procedures of The Consequences of Love.

This Must Be the Place – at Amazon

 

There is also a box set worth having  here. It contains One Man Up (with English subtitles, unlike the standalone dvd), The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend and Il Divo.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

The Consequences of Love

conesquences2

 

 

An easy film to recommend but a hard one to write about. That’s mostly because much of the power of The Consequences of Love derives from director Paolo Sorrentino’s playful decision to disguise what the film is all about. In fact it’s not even clear what genre he’s dealing with until a long way in. But a genre film it is, and the eventual realisation just which one director Sorrentino is toying with will either have you throwing hands up to heaven or kicking your legs into the air with joy. It starts as it means to go on – a long establishing shot of an empty moving walkway in an airport. Though this is beautifully framed, as the entire film is, the shot itself establishes nothing at all. Similarly there’s the film’s main character, the marvellously inert Toni Servillo who plays Titta, a name as stupid in Italian as it is in English. Titta is a long-term resident in an anodyne hotel in one of the world’s most antiseptic countries, Switzerland. He’s a man of few words, and those largely take the form of impenetrable or blindingly obvious aphorisms (“Shy people notice everything but they don’t get noticed”) whose unchanging routine includes a weekly delivery of a mysterious suitcase and his Wednesday morning ritual of injecting himself with heroin and blissing out. An initially incongruous element in a film which only declares itself fully as it heads flat out for the sort of ending Quentin Tarantino might deliver if he were mainlining Hieronymous Bosch. The Consequences of Love is a long cinematic joke, really, but a cool, dry, funny one.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

The Consequences of Love – at Amazon