A new divo for Italian cinema


Italian director Paolo Sorrentino likes a challenge, whether it’s getting backing for a film about former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, or getting Sean Penn to wear a goth wig and play a weirdo rock star in his latest film, writes DONALD CLARKE

PAOLO SORRENTINO is a master of creative oddness. Recent films such as The Consequences of Love and The Family Friend combined familiar thriller tropes with a taste for unfettered surrealism. Il Divo, his 2008 masterpiece, made a hideous, villainous cartoon of the former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. Now, he’s brought his off-kilter sensibility to Ireland. This Must be the Place, which debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, concerns an eccentric American pop star – teased hair and infantile voice – walled-up quietly in a Dublin mansion. Sean Penn is quite brilliant as the emotionally retarded Cheyenne. There’s something of Robert Smith in his post-Goth decorations. You can hear Michael Jackson in that tense, repressed timbre.

It’s all very entertaining stuff. But one might reasonably wonder why the film is set in Ireland. Any bolthole would have done.

“I didn’t strictly speaking need to use Ireland as a location,” Sorrentino agrees. “But I found this surprising similarity between the atmosphere of Dublin and the character of Cheyenne. I was in Dublin for the film festival in 2008 and I just saw something.”

Paolo Sorrentino looks like the sort of fellow who might direct Paolo Sorrentino films. Sporting a big head of curly hair beneath strong, prominent features, he arrives in the upmarket hotel wearing a rather gorgeous tweed suit. Nobody is likely to mistake him for a visiting widget salesperson. Born in 1970, he is the son of a Neapolitan banker and a housewife. Sorrentino admits that he was not one of those fellows who grew up recording all life on the family’s video recorder. The urge to become a film-maker crept up on him stealthily.

“I was probably 19 or 20 when I developed this ambition,” he says. “Unfortunately I lost both my parents when I was quite young. So they never knew about it. But had I been able to tell them I am sure they would have been absolutely appalled.”

Sorrentino strode out unencumbered by the anxiety of influence. You can see shades of Federico Fellini in his taste for flamboyant images. But he has a much cooler eye than that great director. One thinks of David Lynch while enjoying his weirder detours. But his films are rarely quite so disconnected from reality.

The Consequences of Love and The Family Friend played successfully at Cannes. It was, however, Il Divo that secured his status as a modern master. The film was ruthless in its dissection of Italy’s most elusive post-war leader. Toni Servillo portrayed Andreotti as a combination of bipedal snake and Machiavellian Caesar. One can’t help but wonder how Sorrentino got the thing made. After all, now closing in on his century, the old fox is still with us.

“Nobody wanted to give me the money to make it,” he agrees. “I had to resort to several professional tricks which will not be revealed. But it was very difficult.” Professional tricks? Do I take this to mean that he concealed the true nature of the script? “No, no, no. I never lied about the way I wanted to portray Andreotti. One of the devices I used when they didn’t want to give me the money was to accuse them of applying censorship and saying I was going to speak up about it. But I never actually lied about it.”

Sorrentino, who sounds like a born diplomat, goes on to explain how the right-wing press quickly got behind the film when it started winning awards. They love a home success. One assumes that the atmosphere has changed somewhat in Italy. Now that Silvio Berlusconi has gone . . . At the mention of that notorious politician, both Sorrentino and his translator offer extravagant gestural demonstrations of disgust and relief. They don’t quite slap their foreheads and spit in the ashtray. But it is made abundantly clear that both feel a weight has been lifted.

“In my opinion there is hope for everybody and everyone,” he says. “But history seems to have this pattern of repeating itself. Might that be applicable to the situation we are now in? Who knows? But there is hope.”

Deriving its title from a Talking Heads tune, This Must be the Place is a less obviously combustible piece than Il Divo. Indeed, it begins in a sort of deadened reverie. Cheyenne lives with his likeable, sober wife (Frances McDormand) in a sprawling, characterless mansion. They spend their afternoons playing handball and muttering amiable inanities. The urge to satirise the solipsism of the pop star lifestyle must have been close to overwhelming. The protagonist emerges, however, as an extremely kind, unfailingly decent human being.

What real-life models did he and Penn work from? “Robert Smith for sure. That was always on his mind,” he says. “But Michael Jackson was never in my mind. Knowing Sean Penn, I would be surprised if he thought of Michael Jackson at all in devising the mannerisms. But I can see why you’d think that. It’s a common trait with rock stars. They reach the zenith quite early and that can stop their development. They crystallise in that early moment.”

As the film progresses, Cheyenne becomes aware that his father, a Holocaust survivor, is dying and he decides to hunt down the Auschwitz guard with whom the old man has long been obsessed. He travels to America and This Must be the Place turns itself into an offbeat road movie. The two sections fit together slightly uncomfortably. Need the hero have been a rock star?

“The kernel of the idea was pre-existing,” he says. “It stemmed out of my interest in the Holocaust, which I had extensively researched, because I am very interested in human behaviour. That era gives the complete scope of human behaviour – from its worst to its most brave. The character then developed after meeting Sean Penn in Cannes.”

So Cheyenne would not have existed if Penn had not come on board? “It was tailor-made on the basis of Sean Penn attaching himself to this project. Also, it was connected with asking Sean Penn to come up with the sort of performance he had not attempted before.”

I assume he’s going to tell me that working in Ireland was a nightmare. The weather was awful, the crew was ghastly. That sort of thing.

“I am not saying this just because you are here, but I am absolutely in love with Ireland and Dublin,” he laughs. “I am in awe of the family I found there. Even more than in Italy, I found this family atmosphere on set. My only worry was that I had never worked abroad before. But I found myself at ease very quickly. I really mean that.”

And I suppose that, having worked in Rome, he was used to the traffic problems. “What traffic problems? I never noticed. Ha ha!”

Reports have emerged that the Weinstein Company, who are distributing This Must be the Place in the US, urged Sorrentino to recut the film for that market. Given the fearsome reputation of Harvey Weinstein, one could be forgiven for assuming that some heated arguments took place.

“No, no. Part of the agreement was that I kept artistic control. There is an edit for the United States but I cut that edit. So they were in complete agreement.” What was the problem? “Oh, in the States they have this fixation that everything must be crystal clear. Everything must be understood.”

At least one of his cast members had a personal interest in the opening scenario. Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono, turns up as a teenage Cheyenne fan. Asking the singer for advice on the script could have caused some offence. After all, Sean Penn plays a genuine weirdo.

“I did spend an evening with Bono,” Sorrentino says. “Bono read the script, but out of mutual respect we decided not to discuss the story. So he did not have any involvement with the project.” Yes indeed. The man is an instinctive diplomat.

This Must be the Place is on general release from Friday