Friday, February 07, 2014

The Paolo Sorrentino Files: This Must Be the Place

Alot of the malaise towards Paolo Sorrentino's 2011 film "This Must Be the Place" lay at the feet of Sean Penn in the starring role of Cheyenne.... a soft-spoken, almost child like ex-rock star who never quite outgrew the Robert Smith 1980's. It's such an offbeat, downright weird incarnation that a lot of people couldn't get past the interpretation. While I do admit that it took me a good portion of the film to buy into the character myself, when it finally happened (sometime when his travels take him to New Mexico) I became swept away by the sheer energy and originality of Sorrentino and Penn's vision of a broken man-child trying to alleviate the torments of a father.

The synopsis of "This Must Be the Place" sounds just as loony as Penn's emo-rocker portrayal. Living an invisible life in Ireland, married to Frances McDormand, Cheyenne (Penn) seems to only have one friend, young goth rock fan Mary (Eve Hewson). Acting like an older brother, there's also the strange relationship with an older woman, traumatized by some past event that Cheyenne might be involved in. Wandering through his life aimlessly, Cheyenne is notified that his father has died in New York. Once back home, we learn Cheyenne is from a wealthy Jewish family and the stories of his father's time, tortured and humiliated, in a Nazi concentration camp come to light. There begins Cheyenne's journey across America to hunt down the supposed Nazi officer, stopping for several surreal experiences along the way that Italian director Sorrentino is so adept at tossing our direction.

One thing is crystal clear after two Sorrentino films.... this is a filmmaker working on a much more ethereal level than others out there right now. After his masterpiece "The Great Beauty" last year, "This Must Be the Place" serves as an appealing appetizer to that great work. Both films feature a roving, imaginative camera that glimpses the sudden beauty of mankind in breathtaking snatches. For example, when Cheyenne finally returns to his wife, played by Frances McDormand, we Sorrentino shows us a brief cut of her dropping a bag of groceries and running across the lawn towards the camera. It's through our intuition that we piece this together as her joyous reunion with her globe-trotting husband. Then there's the magical animal moment in which a bison slowly appears outside the window of Cheyenne... an event that mimics the grand giraffe metaphor in "The Great Beauty". Sorrentino may be accused of many things, but his ability to levitate striking moments of human connection to the small wonders around them is solemnly in his grasp. Even the tense final meeting between son and tormenter is handled in such an original, thought-provoking way that we completely understand the final transformation Cheyenne undergoes. "This Must Be the Place" finds great beauty in the horrors of the past and comes out unscathed and even a bit happy.

No comments: