Celebrated European arthouse directors can have a hard time adjusting to filmmaking in America. Just as Woody Allen has struggled to make decent movies outside his native Manhattan through misjudgement and naivety of his new surroundings, Old-world auteurs can struggle to get to grips with the American reality. This Must Be The Place is Paolo Sorrentino’s first film set outside his native Italy, which, perhaps, goes some way to explain why it is not an unparalleled success. That said, it is the sheer oddity of the plot and not simply the new setting that makes the film uneven.

It starts off in a conventional – or at least recognisable – vein: a study of both middle-age depression and celebrity ennui, with Sean Penn playing Cheyenne, a forty-something former goth rockstar, living a glum existence near Dublin. We see him visiting graves of former fans, playing the Basque game pelota in an empty swimming pool and hanging out at the mall with a girl a third of his age, Mary (Eve Hewson). All the while he is supported by his down-to-earth, firefighter wife of 35 years, Jane (Frances MsDormand). So far, so kooky.

Thanks to Penn’s meek, mannered, Truman Capote-esque voice, Cheyenne is initially tooth-grindingly annoying and the first half an hour is poor. The jokes and scenes that are meant to be comic often fall flat and the Irish dialogue sounds clumsy – a rarity for that most voluble of Anglophone peoples. There are some moments, such as Cheyenne’s suspended question: “Why is Lady Gaga…?” that really hit the mark, but Sorrentino has little feel for Ireland or the expatriate experience there.

However, the movie changes tack rather drastically when Cheyenne receives a phone call informing him that his Auschwitz-survivor father has died and he must attend the funeral in New York. There, he discovers that his father had been searching for his Nazi tormentor in the camp, also living in America, for the last sixty years and wants his son to find him and kill him. Here the movie morphs into that most American of genres: the road movie, and is all the better for it. But Sorrentino’s knowledge of the U.S. – cinematic and otherwise – improves this section of the film. He is clearly realising many dreams by making a feature in America: populating it with Hollywood actors he loves, American music he loves and a myriad of transatlantic cinematic tropes.

In the best scene, after a live performance of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”, David Byrne himself gives sage advice to Cheyenne and we first start to see his mascara-smudged mask slip. Penn drops his soft drawl and exhibits cathartic, raw emotions. The personal transformation that marks all road movies is evidently under way and an examination of his life, values and marriage will follow – not without a few leftfield tweaks, of course.

There is something beguiling about the film from here on in: the scenarios, shots and characters encountered at once feel both stereotypical and daringly idiosyncratic. Fat people, freaks, the uncouth, and a frustrated young waitress working at a roadside diner all make appearances; yet somehow, the delicacy of the treatment, combined with the arthouse sensibility and the striking cinematography keep it a fresh serio-comedy. The brilliant soundtrack by Will Oldham and David Byrne does not hurt it, either.

Critics have complained that the Auschwitz issue is treated with impertinence, but I did not feel that to be the case. Quirky plot ruse that it may be, what takes place is in no way offensive. As the director himself has stated, the attractiveness of Cheyenne as a character comes from the fact he “know[s] nothing about the Holocaust” and the film, if anything, shows how that most horrific of events has altered the lives of so many different people.

Sorrentino has said that “opposites work well together” and this idea allows the implausible to seem almost believable: as if somehow a retiring, retired rocker really is the best man to hunt down a ninety-year-old Nazi. Similarly, Manichean contrast is clear throughout the film: especially in how the low-skied, grey, claustrophobic Ireland is contrasted with the blue-skied, open-road land of revelation that is America.

While the film is surely not the director’s best work, by his own admission his most “simple” given its linearity and lack of subplots, it remains an interesting watch. The film does raise questions of authenticity in art and the universality of human existence through its occasional heavy-handedness; one gets the impression the director doesn’t fully appreciate the cultural and political realities of the U.S. or Ireland. For that reason, it will be intriguing to see whether Sorrentino returns to his Italian comfort zone for his next feature. For all its faults, one hopes he does make another English-language film, as this is a strange yet promising first American effort.

Illustration by Leonie Gavrias