Back in the early 1990s, the comedian Rob Newman used to do a sketch on The Mary Whitehouse Experience in which he’d dress up as The Cure’s Robert Smith and sing nursery rhymes in an appropriately cracked, willowy voice.
With Smith’s doom-laden Goth persona contrasting wildly with the mundane lyrics of songs that most of us casually associate with the carefree existence of childhood, the gag was irresistible and amusingly sweet: conjuring up as it did an incongruous image of how an iconic pop star might interact with a world that seems normal to the rest of us.
It’s hard not to be reminded of this sketch while watching the early scenes of This Must Be the Place, the strange new film from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, in which Sean Penn plays a retired, Robert Smith-inspired Goth rocker living a life of banal luxury in tax haven Dublin. Just the surreal sight of Penn’s character, Cheyenne, going about his day in full Smith get-up, oblivious to the stares he attracts while shuffling through the frozen foods section of the local supermarket, trolley to hand, can’t help but raise a smile.
What stops it being a one-joke movie, however, is the quest Sorrentino subsequently assigns Cheyenne. Upon discovering his estranged, Holocaust-surviving father is dying in New York, Cheyenne undertakes a somewhat quixotic mission to fly to the US and track down his dad’s Nazi tormentor. It is, to say the least, one of the more bizarre movie premises to emerge in recent years – sort of like Marathon Man, minus the running and the sadistic dentistry.
“I was not interested in duplicating movies that have been done before about the Holocaust,” says Sorrentino by way of explanation. “I wanted something that was set in the present day, and the perception of this person trying to find a war criminal made it more current.”
Though initially he thought about making a film about a frail old man hunting Nazis (something that would possibly have hewed too closely to real-life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal), he decided to make the main character a rock star after seeing The Cure perform three years ago and being shocked – “in a good way” – by the sight of the fiftysomething Smith dressed exactly the way he did when he was in his twenties.
“I thought about who would be the most implausible person to go on a hunt and that seemed to work,” recalls Sorrentino. “I also wanted to subvert the idea of a fast-paced hunt. I wanted to portray a slow hunt, so I needed an unlikely protagonist.”
Cheyenne is certainly that – and Penn’s leftfield casting plays into this, even though it won’t be a complete surprise to anyone who remembers his darkly funny turn as an Olivia Newton John impersonator in the little-seen short film, The Beaver Kid (1981). Penn, it turns out, was already a fan of Sorrentino’s, having headed the Cannes jury that awarded his previous film, Il Divo (Sorrentino’s virtuoso political biopic of corrupt Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti), a major prize at the 2009 festival.
At the ceremony, Penn told the up-and-coming director he wanted to work with him, though it’s a fair bet he didn’t quite imagine a film about a Nazi-hunting Goth would land on his desk. Did he take much convincing? Apparently not: “I know he gets around 40 or 50 scripts a month, so I gave myself a timescale, but he called straight away.”
Sorrentino reckons the film gets away with the oddball premise partly because of its humourous scope, although it’s precisely this that has the potential to make it more contentious. After all, when it comes to portraying anything to do with the Holocaust, filmmakers tend to opt for solemnity – and with good reason. Make light of it and there’s always the risk of creating a Springtime for Hitler monstrosity. Sorrentino never considered this an issue and points to the example set by fellow Italian director Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. “That film treated the subject with light, comedic touches. In my movie, the Holocaust is not the central theme. It’s a very important backdrop, but it’s not the central element. It was not a challenge as such.”
In truth, the theme of the film has more in common with the ending of Quentin Tarrantino’s Inglourious Basterds. In contrast to the way Christoph Waltz’s “Jew Hunter” is branded with a swastika to prevent him ever being able to disappear into civilised life, Cheyenne’s whimsical search for an elderly Nazi highlights the ways in which surface appearances can be their own form of deception. “One of my recurring thoughts was of the secret, mysterious life that former Nazi criminals are forced to live in some part of the world,” nods Sorrentino. “Men who now have the features of harmless, good-natured old people, but whose past is marked by the extermination of a people. It’s a diametrically opposed image.”
Speaking of image, given the debt the film owes to Robert Smith, one of the more puzzling aspects of the film is Sorrentino’s decision to name it after a Talking Heads song. Indeed, watch the film and, aside from Penn’s character, it soon becomes clear that it is, in part, an extended tribute to David Byrne’s art rockers, with Byrne himself making an amusingly stiff cameo appearance, performing the title song live, and composing the score, along with Will Oldham.
“The movie is a concentrated cauldron of elements that were important in my adolescence and among them Talking Heads were the most important,” elaborates Sorrentino. Ask him why and he says wanted to relive the emotion and passion he experienced as a boy when his older brother introduced him to rock music for the first time. “I spent that period of my life obsessively dissecting rock, especially Talking Heads and their brilliant creator David Byrne.” Quite what this has to do with hunting Nazis is anyone’s guess (Sorrentino won’t elaborate any further), but as with the Robert Smith references, the incongruity works – albeit it a strange way. “It’s not an intellectual movie,” cautions Sorrentino, eventually. “It’s a movie driven by emotions.”
l This Must Be The Place is on selected release from 6 April