One of the more intriguing films opening this November stars Sean Penn in the most unconventional role of his life. In "This Must Be The Place," from the Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, he plays Cheyenne, a rich, retired rock star, now about 50, who chooses to hold on to the way he looked in his glory days – hair dyed black and back-combed, mascara, pancake make-up and scarlet lipstick. (The real rock icon he most closely resembles is the Cure’s Robert Smith.)
Squeaky-voiced and defiantly eccentric, Cheyenne lives with his wife (Frances McDormand) in a rambling mansion in Dublin; Ireland is a tax haven for creative artists. His home is filled with expensive gadgets, toys and art works. He spends most of his time shopping in a neighborhood mall. He’s a jaded husk of a man with no apparent purpose left in life.
But when he hears his father is dying, he travels to New York. It turns out Cheyenne is Jewish, and at the funeral he learns his father was persecuted in a Nazi death camp by a German soldier, now elderly, and secretly living in America. Acting resolutely for once, Cheyenne decides to track him down.
In this story, an audacious mix of the comical and deadly serious, Cheyenne, trundling a little suitcase on wheels behind him, travels through small-town America, encountering its essential strangeness: one out-of-the-way town bills itself as home to “the world’s largest pistachio.”
The film inevitably recalls other movies about weird, eccentric Americana: David Lynch’s "The Straight Story," some Coen Brothers titles – and David Byrne’s "True Stories," which was a whimsical account of a small Texas town. It’s also reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ "Paris, Texas" – another film about middle America by a European director. Intriguingly Harry Dean Stanton, the lead in "Paris, Texas," has a cameo role in Sorrentino’s film.
"This Must be the Place" is Sorrentino’s fifth feature; its predecessors -- "One Man Up," "The Consequences of Love," "The Family Friend" and "Il Divo" – were all made in Italy and between them earned him a growing reputation as one of Europe’s most interesting and accomplished directors.
The film shares its title with a song by Talking Heads, whose former frontman David Byrne appears and sings "This Must Be The Place" it in a concert performance.
Sorrentino, who is 42, discussed the film during a visit to London. (Weinstein Co. and Sorrentino have trimmed the film since its 2011 Cannes debut, where it met a mixed reaction.)
David Gritten: Were you deliberately looking for a story idea that would allow you to film in America?
Paolo Sorrentino: No, the initial idea which I had been kicking around for a number of years was to write a story about a Nazi criminal, now very old, hidden away somewhere. Then I met Sean Penn in Cannes (in 2008, when Penn headed up the jury, and Sorrentino’s "Il Divo" was in competition). We agreed we’d like to work together. I had the idea that it would be more interesting to have the main character somebody who did not live that period in the first person -- who would have knowledge, but who would be forced to delve into that world and go and seek someone who was a Nazi criminal.