This Must Be the Place

This Must Be the Place ★★

Review from Next Projection

Just how important a component of cinematic storytelling is good cinematography? Certainly a badly shot film is one harder to engage with, but should achievement in aesthetic terms take precedence over those in narrative? It’s a fundamental question of what makes cinema unique, really: are not movies—the moving pictures—defined in terms of the quality and composition of these pictures? Scarcely have such ponderings seemed so relevant as in consideration of This Must Be the Place, the English-language debut of acclaimed Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, a deeply troubled marriage of stunning visual vistas and tonally unhinged narrative deliverance.

Paramount not only to the story Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello weave, but also to its flurry of prominent issues, is the performance of Sean Penn: he plays the reluctantly aged Cheyenne, former leader of a punk rock band now resting on his laurels in a lush Dublin home. Resembling in appearance Robert Smith, in mannerisms and voice Michael Jackson, Penn is so far from his comfort zone here he takes a moment to recognise. It’s an impressive portrayal not least of all in the extent of Penn’s conviction: he believes in this film and his character, and the gusto with which he leaps into unfamiliar territory is to be commended. If only we could follow him with quite so much trust as he follows Sorrentino: much as Penn seems to value his merits, Cheyenne is a phenomenally irritating creation, the high-pitch of his dreary drawl instantly and immensely grating, almost as much so as the laconic apathy with which he goes about his days.

An annoying protagonist does not a bad story make, and the alienating oddity of Penn’s performance is far from alone in making Sorrentino’s so inaccessible a film. Loosely comic for much of its first act, the plot switches sides of the Atlantic to visit Cheyenne’s father on his deathbed, eventually leading to a cross-country hunt for the Nazi oppressor whose torturous actions remained engrained in the old man’s mind for decades after their infliction. It’s a sort of wild, kooky narrative twist doubtlessly intended as an absurd and amusing way to inject proceedings with some deal of momentum, yet Penn’s po-faced plodding across America only serves to emphasise the gap which appears between the more serious underlying issues and the intent of humour employed to approach them. Dark subject matter and quirky comedy make for uneasy bedfellows at the best of times; forced beneath the sheets together as here, they clash in the most unseemly of ways.

The wild tonality of its story and misguided aim of its humour make This Must Be the Place a film easy to dismiss as trifling indulgence, yet there still remains the small matter of the film’s visuals. Luca Bigazzi is Sorrentino’s regular cinematographer, and brings here the same extraordinary understanding of space which means so much in the director’s better work. Essentially shooting a road movie, Bigazzi captures with indescribable beauty the American landscape, his extreme wide shots stunning in their depth and breadth, striking in the effulgence of their lighting. This story may unfold with nonsensical irreverence, but the places in which it does so could not be more gracefully captured. What shame that so impeccably handsome a film should bear so abrasively tortuous a narrative; how frustrating to waste this much resplendent imagery on storytelling so clumsily imbalanced.

There are those who will enjoy This Must Be the Place, those who will welcome its manic tonal style and absurdist comic sensibility with open arms. More, most likely, will begrudge it its sheer weirdness, and the way it explores its prospective themes only by way of association, skipping the potential for depth in favour of wackiness. Presence in gushing abundance is the sense of geographical transformation, of transition of place as expressed by the camera. Missing is any similar sense of character growth; much as Cheyenne may find himself in the course of the film, the rest of us are left to continue looking, no closer to a picture of this man than when we started.