A movie for every day of the year – a good one
The Mainz pogrom, 1349
In the 14th century, the bubonic plague – aka the Black Death – killed between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe’s population (20-30 million people) in the course of about six years. It arrived from Asia in 1346 and ran rampant. No one knew what the cause of it was, but one of the theories was that it was God’s way of showing his displeasure with humanity, either for waging war constantly (the 100 Years War was ten years in), failing to drive the Muslim out of the Holy Land, or, casting about for any handy excuse, for allowing the Jews to live unassimilated in Christian lands. This last was seized upon in Mainz, home of Europe’s largest Jewish community, in 1349, when the Jews were attacked by an angry mob. The Jews fought back, killing maybe 200 of their attackers, but they were eventually overwhelmed and 6,000 of them were burnt at the stake. The plague continued.
This Must Be the Place (201, dir: Paolo Sorrentino)
Italian maestro Paolo Sorrentino’s English language debut was seen as something of a disappointment when it debuted in 2011. This must partly be because it seems to be offering one sort of film and instead delivers another.
The film it seems to be offering can be summed up in the many shots of its star, Sean Penn, in goth wig and smeared make-up, like Robert Smith of the Cure after a few weeks on a Hollywood paleo diet. A film that’s going to poke maudlin fun at pop culture. And for a while it does. We meet Cheyenne, the exiled pop star Penn plays, in his Ireland residence, being waited on by a comely assistant. It’s Eve Hewson, the daughter of U2’s Bono, which only reinforces the notion that pop culture is what this film is all about. Cheyenne drifts about, not doing particularly much, offering make-up advice unasked to a gaggle of women in a lift (always put some powder on before applying lippie, he counsels), behaving exactly as you’d expect a rich, indulged but essentially harmless man to behave who’s come to the end of his career without quite realising it – “Why is Lady Gaga?” he asks in exasperation at one humorous point, perhaps sensing that for him it really is all over.
Cheyenne’s character established, Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello then throw this least likely contender for Charles Bronson’s T shirt off on a Death Wish revenge jaunt, after Cheyenne’s father dies in New York and the withdrawn muso realises that the man who destroyed him in Auschwitz is still alive and kicking. The film suddenly changes direction, transforming into a picaresque road movie in which Cheyenne meets one oddball after another, though he himself remains the still centre in a performance that’s a sustained bravura one note fugue. Is Sorrentino overtly referencing David Byrne’s True Stories – a picaresque journey in oddball sauce? Probably, and here’s Byrne playing himself in one of the first encounters that Cheyenne has as he makes his way across the US in hangdog pursuit of what must be the last missing Nazi, surely.
You might have expected Sorrentino to become less arthouse for his English language debut but instead he’s gone the other way, telling his story through the rhythms of his editing and his colour palette even more than he had in his previous film Il Divo, his spectacular biopic about Italian political eminence Giulio Andreotti. His camera here is spectacular too, so elegantly gliding that it actually distracts attention from the story, which is sliding from the superficial to the profound as Cheyenne makes his steady way towards his quarry, one weird meeting at a time. Will he find this old Auschwitz guard? If so, what will a meek retired goth do with him? What sort of revenge is it appropriate to exact? Is revenge even the right way to go? Sorrentino keeps all the options in play to the last moment, his final shot of Cheyenne doing rubber-burning 360 degree donuts in his station wagon a grand, operatic finish to a film that started out more like a hooky pop song.
- Sean Penn’s performance
- The cast includes Harry Dean Stanton and Frances McDormand
- Luca Bigazzi’s remarkable cinematography
- Because Sorrentino is one of the greatest directors alive
© Steve Morrissey 2014