The first English-language film by writer-director Paolo Sorrentino is many things at once. It’s a story about the continuing nightmare of the Holocaust. It’s a tale of fathers, sons and family. It’s a road movie. And it’s study of a most intriguing character. Amazingly, “This Must Be the Place” combines all these elements in a picture that’s both charming and touching, as well as visually ravishing. Its ethereal, surrealistic tone makes it unlikely to become a mainstream hit, but connoisseurs shouldn’t pass up the chance—probably a brief window—to see it on the big screen.
Sean Penn delivers a remarkably gauged performance as Cheyenne, a reclusive one-time rock icon who now lives with his genially supportive wife Jane (Frances McDormand) in Dublin. Slightly stooped and walking arthritically with a deliberation that suggests he’s always treading on eggs, Cheyenne, with long, stringy hair he keeps blowing from his eyes, heavy makeup and a high-pitched voice and deliberate mode of speech, seems like some haunted dream from the past—and Penn never breaks the spell to wink at us. He embodies the character, making him sympathetic for his childlike honesty, integrity and shattered emotions—a quiet despondency brought on by the fact that, as he later explains, his nihilistic songs caused two fans to commit suicide, something for which he’s never forgiven himself.
After some initial business involving an aspiring singer and young Mary (Eve Hewson), a teen friend he tries to play matchmaker for with a shy clerk, the plot kicks in when Cheyenne’s informed that his father, whom he’s not spoken to in thirty years, is near death, and he must overcome his fear of flying try to cross the Atlantic to see him before the end. (He winds up on a ship instead.) He doesn’t make it to New York in time, but as a sort of expiation takes up the late man’s crusade to track down, and punish, the German who, as an Auschwitz guard, humiliated him while he was a prisoner there. Despite the refusal of famed Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch) to assist him, Cheyenne moves ahead with his mission.
Thus begins his picaresque road trip, which takes him to Michigan, where he pretends to be a former student of a brusque retired teacher (Joyce Van Patten), and thence to New Mexico, where he spends time with a waitress (Kerry Condon) and her young son, to Utah, where he confers with a fellow diner (Harry Dean Stanton) who turns out to have played an important part in the design of Cheyenne’s travel gear and gives him a clue as to where the guard, Aloise Lange (Heinz Lieven) might be found. But the man seems to have escaped once again, until Midler shows up. That leads to personal resolution for Cheyenne, both with his father and back in Ireland.
This precis, however, doesn’t begin to suggest the texture and flavor of the film. Sorrentino fills it with grace notes, bits of business that Penn carries off with comic deftness that often trails into poignancy. There’s the impromptu living-room sing-a-long he has with the waitress’ shy son, and a game of ping pong he has with a kid in a diner. There’s the occasion when his pickup suddenly bursts into flames, and a passerby commiserates with him, or the discussion he has about gratitude with a tattoo artist in a bar, or his amused reaction when traffic stops to hoist a huge liquor bottle as a roadside advertisement. And those are only a few of the incidents that the picture offers, always with a becoming degree of understatement that dovetails with Penn’s gentle performance. Even when the confrontation with Lange occurs, it’s done in a way that’s the antithesis of bombast and typical triumphalism.
The rest of the cast respond with loving attention to detail to Sorrentino’s dreamlike approach, meshing with Penn perfectly even when (as is the case with McDormand) they add a dash of exuberance to his dourness. David Byrne himself appears briefly in a scene that features him singing the title song, along with one of Cheyenne’s most revealing outbursts.
And as important to the mood as the acting is the physical production, with luminous cinematography by Luca Bigazzi that captures a vision of the American landscape as palpable as (though far less brutal than) the verbal one in Nabokov’s “Lolita” and a look (courtesy of production designer Stefania Cella and art director Irene O’Brien) that’s at once authentic and positively magical, a tone enhanced by Cristiano Travaglioli’s elegiac editing, which moves in tandem with Penn’s performance and in unison with Byrne’s music.
There’s a real touch of magic in both Sorrentino’s film and the stately, poised performance by Penn that anchors it. “This Must Be the Place” is the sort of film Fellini might have made in America—imaginative, sly, funny and profound. It’s a real find.