For fifth feature This Must Be the Place (2011), director Paolo Sorrentino has ditched his native Italy and produced his first English language film, seeking out self-confessed fan Sean Penn after meeting him at Cannes in 2008 (where Sorrentino was premièring the critically-praised offbeat political thriller Il Divo). The actor was promptly signed up to play Cheyenne, a mid-life crisis-stricken former rock star who goes on the hunt for his Jewish father’s Nazi perpetrator.
Sorrentino’s latest is primarily focused on the distance – or, in Cheyenne’s case, the absence, of a father-son relationship. It is only in the wake of his father’s death that the ageing Robert Smith-lookalike realises the inseparable love and protection that blood holds over a person, thus determined to seek some form of resolution. (The severity of using a Nazi criminal as his stimulus for change is a clever and interesting dramatic catalyst.) Thus, the quiet and meek Cheyenne embarks on a bizarre road trip littered with subtly comic moments, usually entailing his shy and rather unwelcoming response to fans who notice him.
Fittingly, his best friend in the world is his straightforward, liberal wife Jane (Frances McDormand). His marriage is healthy and sweetly-illustrated, yet Cheyenne himself seems regressive, insecure and more like a child than the little boy he meets on his travels – a child whose pleas encourage the retired rocker to pull out his guitar and play for a two-strong audience (accompanied by the child’s single and enamoured mother and coincidentally – the granddaughter of the subject of his hunt).
The peculiarities of Penn’s Cheyenne are so utterly convincing that when – at the film’s denouement – we see a makeup-free, suited individual stepping casually down the street with a smile on his face, we can’t help but miss the strange, enigmatic rock icon we have come to empathise with throughout his remarkable journey – a quite unexpected and beautiful moment.
This Must Be the Place is somehow simultaneously heavy and light-hearted; the comic element barely there yet tangible, the starker elements significant, though not excessively dwelt upon – even the dawdling Cheyenne is matter-of-fact about his surreal Nazi-hunt. Sorrentino’s finely-tuned and unusual style is emitted from start to finish, exceeding his chances of becoming a labelled auteur in the not-too-distant future.