Rock and a hard place

It is the kind of quirky, free-spirited movie that could only have come from the outer margins of the US indie scene. It features a remarkable central performance from Sean Penn, expert appearances from veterans Frances McDormand and Harry Dean Stanton, and a cameo from the nowadays-distinguished rock musician David Byrne. That kind of countercultural clout hits heavy. Throw in the structure of a road movie, a hip soundtrack and a revenge plot. Stir and serve.

There is added spice to the mix of This Must be the Place. Its director, Paolo Sorrentino, comes from Italy – a country whose cinematic tradition is not noted for its easy dialogue with pop culture. But, not for the first time, Sorrentino has confounded expectations. His new movie is cool all right but it also grapples with the kind of deep existential questions that are associated with more ponderous European arthouse fare. This Must be the Place is a brilliant bringing together of serious moral reflection and instant-blend pop surrealism.

The film has attracted initial attention for the radical and improbable transformation of its lead actor. Penn plays Cheyenne, a thinly disguised visual version of the Cure’s Robert Smith, as a middle-aged rock star whose talents and appetites have deserted him. Living off royalties in exile in Dublin, he belatedly encounters a moral purpose in his life when he discovers the extent of his estranged father’s humiliation at the hands of an Auschwitz guard. He decides to track down the guard and make him pay.

“It was an old idea of mine,” says Sorrentino on a recent visit to London. “I was fascinated by the idea of these old Nazis who are hidden around the world. And I was interested by their old age. Normally we think of old age as something reassuring. But a very old man who is also considered a criminal was interesting to me. And, for some strange reason, Nazis seem to live for a very long time.”

Why would that be, I ask. “I don’t know,” he responds a little exasperatedly. “You had better ask a doctor or a psychologist.”

Sorrentino, 41, is a soft-spoken Neapolitan who answers questions with an economy, almost a terseness, that is not readily associated with his native city’s inhabitants. But the lateral leaps in his imagination are evident in even his swiftly drawn responses. “Cinema should explore human behaviour,” he says. “And the Holocaust was the biggest laboratory for the exploration of human behaviour of all time. I wanted to talk about that but not to set the film at that time. There have already been a lot of excellent films that have done that. I wanted to see how someone roughly my age would confront the tragedy of that period, in a very simple way.”

Director Paolo Sorrentino with Penn on set

It is Sorrentino’s dialectical way of thinking that acts as the engine for his impressively realised stories. The character of Cheyenne, he says, was devised to contrast the frivolity of a rock star lifestyle with the more solemn lives lived by his parents.

“I was interested in that confrontation with seriousness,” he says. Is that a problem for his generation, I ask? “Certainly. Many of our problems are to do with the difficulty of finding an identity. Our parents lived much more important lives than ours, and this has created big problems for us.”

Notwithstanding his sullen and desiccated life, Cheyenne’s willingness to engage with such monumental issues becomes an act of redemption. “It shows that someone who seems to have ephemeral concerns can become anything but ephemeral when pitted against real problems,” says Sorrentino.

It was eight years ago that Sorrentino sprang to the attention of film audiences with The Consequences of Love (2004), his haunting tale of erotic obsession and criminality. Though only the director’s second film, it seemed to have arrived perfectly formed, I tell him. “I wrote it very fast,” he replies. “It took me a week.” He was inspired by the number of nights he had spent in hotel rooms while travelling with his first film, One Man Up (2001), on the festival circuit.

“I observed and took notes,” he says. “The businessmen, the bars, the boredom. But also the mystery of hotels, the idea of secret travellers passing through quickly.” He allied those themes with another life-long interest, in the activities of the Mafia. The climax of the film – no spoilers – is unforgettable, and the director’s confident, fluent narrative style earned his work a Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes. Sorrentino returned to similar territory in The Family Friend (2006) – another older man infatuated with a beautiful young woman – with less successful results.

But if he suffered a failure of nerve, he didn’t show it with his follow-up, Il Divo (2008), a magisterial portrait of the controversial Italian politician Giulio Andreotti. It was brave of him, I suggest, to embrace the complexity of the man at the expense of commercial success. The film was almost incomprehensible to non-Italians, wasn’t it?

He demurs a little. “Certain audiences understood it, they got his style of politics. Italians, of course, but also US audiences, which might have compared Andreotti’s style to someone like Kissinger. But other countries, where that style of politics is much rarer, found it more complicated. I’m not sure what the Swedes made of it. This was a man who could call up the Pope whenever he wanted, who had so many links with the Arab world in such a delicate period.”

The film was a rarity, I say – normally, in political biopics such as The Iron Lady, for example, complexity is sacrificed for narrative clarity.

“I haven’t seen it but that’s probably true,” he says. “But it would have been dishonest not to tell the true story, and it was a highly complex story.”

I ask what he makes of the Italian film industry at present. “I am usually an optimist. I don’t like doom-mongering. But it’s not going terribly well.” He blames the success of unsophisticated, undemanding comedies for cinema’s loss of ambition.

“But that is happening everywhere. It is the fault of the producers. They are simple-minded people. They always have been, but they used to have the intelligence to pause before they spoke, and trust the creator’s vision. Now they have become more arrogant and their simplicity is reflected in the films themselves.”

I ask what his next project is. “I don’t know. For those very reasons. I have to create a project with a double face, that looks simple but that actually has some complexity to it. It requires a degree of furbizia [cunning] that I haven’t yet been able to muster.” He gives the wryest of smiles, because he knows no one is going to believe that.

‘This Must Be the Place’ is released in UK cinemas on April 6

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.