Last night I used my connections in London film circles (£1.40 off with my BFI membership card) to gain entrance to a preview of Paolo Sorrentino’s new film THIS MUST BE THE PLACE at the National Film Theatre, or the BFI Southbank as I refuse to call it. I wrote recently about Sorrentino’s brilliant slow-burning Travelodge-mafia breakthrough THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE (2004). IL DIVO (2008), the story of seven-time prime minister of Italy Giulio Andreotti and his alleged Mafia ties, nothing to do with Simon Cowell’s Tesco Value opera crooners, is another of his films well worth a look, but THIS MUST BE THE PLACE marks Sorrentino’s English-language debut. Not only is it named after a track from the most underrated Talking Heads album, but the soundtrack is written by David Byrne and Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Billy), and the cast features Harry Dean Stanton, Frances McDormand and legendary Argentine folk hero Sean Penn. In short, I was very much looking forward to it.
Penn plays retired goth rockstar Cheyenne, complete with Robert Smith’s haircut, Ozzy Osbourne’s mental faculties and the voice of Truman Capote. The film’s first act sees him shuffling round his Dublin mansion checking his eyeliner, occasionally venturing out to pull his granny trolley around the supermarket or shopping centre (what is it with Sorrentino and men being bored in shopping malls?). “Rock stars shouldn’t have kids”, he tells us, “otherwise you run the risk that your daughter becomes a wacky stylist.” There are some great scenes here, the first surprise being that Sorrentino’s script is so natural and funny and doesn’t suffer from any lost in translation issues: indeed there are a fair few jokes in here that only British people will get, like Cheyenne having nothing to do all day but watch the price of his Tesco shares go up and down, or getting confused by the sight of Jamie Oliver on TV (we’ve all been there). But the crisis at the centre of the film leads it to take a bewildering turn.
Back in the US Cheyenne’s father, a Holocaust survivor, has died. After an absence of thirty years Cheyenne is reunited with his Jewish family where he learns about his father’s obsessive mission to track down the SS Officer who humiliated him in Auschwitz. Cue a Wim Wenders-style road trip across America as the world’s most unlikely Nazi-hunter takes up his estranged father’s mission. Now there are some great moments here too: Harry Dean Stanton’s cameo as the man who first thought of putting wheels on suitcases represents too many layers of metatextual commentary for me to process, and at one point David Byrne pops up to sing the title song – a fine reminder of the Citizen Kane of concert movies, Jonathan Demme’s finest hour, STOP MAKING SENSE (1984). I was hoping for a dustbowl dream sequence featuring Fields of the Nephilim but sadly it wasn’t to be. However, the Holocaust centrepiece is just bizarre and I didn’t know what to make of it. The main character is, by his own admission, a shallow man who refused to grow up who is then confronted with a subject of the utmost seriousness. The tone of the whole American segment vaguely reminded me of REPO-MAN (1984), and not just because of Harry Dean Stanton, so if you imagine Alex Cox’s film with a Holocaust subplot you might see why I was struggling. But being a Sorrentino film, the whole thing looks stunning and it’s great to see him expanding his horizons in this way. One of the nice features of the NFT is the programme notes, or “cheat sheet”, everyone gets before the film. To steal a line from the cheat sheet stealing a line from David Byrne, this is Sorrentino’s own “Naive Melody”.
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE goes on general UK release on 6th April.