Director Paolo Sorrentino discusses the Sean Penn-starring This Must Be the Place
The drama merges themes of America, rock music and the Holocaust
The protagonist at the heart of Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must be the Place isn’t your typical Nazi-hunter. Endearingly played by Sean Penn, Cheyenne is a retired rock star, now living in Dublin, whose mental and physical faculties have been impaired by earlier excesses. Sporting red lipstick, mascara and a Robert Smith-style hairdo, and speaking in a high-pitched voice, our hero ends up crossing the Atlantic by ocean liner where he tries to track down the former concentration camp guard, Aloise Lange, who tormented his late father.
There is a rich cinematic tradition of Italian filmmakers collaborating with A-list Hollywood actors: Bernardo Bertolucci working with Robert De Niro in 1900 and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, Luchino Visconti directing Burt Lancaster in the Risorgimento epic The Leopard, or Michelangelo Antonioni and Jack Nicholson heading out to the African desert in The Passenger.
Italian writer and director, Paulo Sorrentino follows in these footsteps with This Must Be the Place, his first film in English having previously found success with films like The Consequences of Love. He first encountered Penn in the flesh at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, when the actor was President of the Jury and the director was presenting Il Divo, his coruscating satire of the veteran politician Giulio Andreotti.
‘I always had the dream of making a movie in the USA,’ reveals the 41-year-old writer and director on a recent trip to the UK. ‘I grew up watching American and Italian movies. All that I loved about America, including its big landscapes and the music of David Byrne’s Talking Heads I put in this movie. Although there are many capable actors in the States, I would have waited for Sean Penn to be free to make This Must be the Place. Like Toni Servillo, whom I worked with on The Consequences of Love and Il Divo, Sean is a great observer of people and circumstances: they both integrate their observations into their performances.’
The Rome-resident Sorrentino is quick to point out several American films, which influenced his own idiosyncratic reworking of the road movie, notably David Lynch’s The Straight Story and Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas (look out for Harry Dean Stanton popping up in a diner cameo). Yet he also explains that, ‘Although I’ve seen a lot of American movies, I knew very little of the USA. I went there like a tourist, for whom everything is new. My approach was helped by the fact that the main character had been out of the country himself for 30 years.’
What connects all of Sorrentino’s films, which are attractively photographed by his regular cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, is the director’s virtuoso ability to shift between styles and tones, here embodied in the juxtaposition of the worlds of rock music and the Holocaust. ‘I did a lot of reading about Nazi hunters and the behaviour of Nazis during World War II in preparing this film,’ reveals Sorrentino. ‘For me the finished film is extremely real, and simpler than my Italian movies. What you see on the screen is the sense I had of the USA during the making of This Must be the Place. I must say I found a lot of the people away from the big cities quite self-centred and eccentric – they were people who wanted to be noticed and remembered.’
This Must be the Place is on selected release from Fri 6 April.