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 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