Let's put it this way: This Must Be the Place is probably the weirdest, most far-out, least "explainable" film you're bound to see all year, and that's as much for the good as it is for the bad. Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's hyper-stylized, surreal American Gothic road-trip through modern-day America follows a mischievous Sean Penn as Robert Smith (from The Cure) lookalike Cheyenne, a retired rock star whose trip to New York for his Holocaust-survivor father's funeral sends him on a curveball journey in search of a concentration camp guard, with Talking Heads' classic "This Must Be the Place" as the film's musical leit-motiv. And if this sounds strange enough, the many encounters of Cheyenne, both in the Dublin suburb where he's been living for the past 30 years with his firefighter wife Jane (Frances McDormand) and in his American travels, are even more bizarre.

     This Must Be the Place looks a lot like a 1970s film in its willing refusal to follow narrative linearity and traditional filmmaking codes, as well as co-opting a name cast into playing along with a deliberate waywardness - that freedom alone is enough to give it a go, since nowadays everybody toes the line instead of releasing truly bizarre propositions like this one. It also has a lot of common, in its non-linear, surreal way, with Mr. Sorrentino's previous fantasy on the life of Giulio Andreotti, Il Divo, and like in that film the director overeggs the pudding with his dazzlingly choreographed camera movements and extraordinary flair for image composition, baroque and overblown to the point of crushing down the film. And yet, while the plot doesn't really seem to go much anywhere, This Must Be the Place slowly frames itself as a melancholy journey of discovery, as Cheyenne's singular, almost whimsical journey back home also turns out to be a journey into himself, finding out what is it he's been missing ever since he cloistered himself in Dublin.

     That that melancholy comes through loud and clear in between the seemingly non-sequitur travels of Cheyenne and the strikingly angular geometry of the visuals is due to both Mr. Penn's fragile, mannered performance and Mr. Sorrentino's way with harnessing a mood rather than tell a story. It may not work all the way, it may not even work for many viewers (judging from the love it or hate it reviews it has been receiving since its revelation at Cannes 2011). But hats off to Mr. Penn and Mr. Sorrentino for daring to stray off the beaten path and take a risk on the zany side.

Sean Penn; Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce van Patten, David Byrne; Frances McDormand. 
     Director, Paolo Sorrentino; screenplay, Mr. Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello; cinematography, Luca Bigazzi (Technicolor, Technovision widescreen); music, David Byrne; designer, Stefania Cella; costumes, Karen Patch; editor, Cristiano Travaglioli; producers, Nicola Giuliano, Andrea Occhipinti, Francesca Cima, Mario Spedaletti (Indigo Film, Lucky Red and Medusa Film in co-production with ARP, France 2 Cinéma and Element Pictures), Italy/France/Ireland, 2011, 118 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, April 22nd 2012.


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