Viewer Guide: Awakenings and This Must Be the Place

May 1, 2020 | Richard Peña


Awakenings (1990)

This week’s classic is Awakenings, the 1990 adaptation of neurologist Oliver Sacks’ memoir of the same name, directed by Penny Marshall.

Set in 1969, Awakenings offers a fictionalized account of Oliver Sacks’ early career, and his breakthrough treatment of patients still suffering from the devastating effects of the “encephalitis lethargica” pandemic of 1915. Robin Williams plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a mild-mannered young doctor seeking a research job at Bainbridge Hospital in the Bronx; however, when Dr. Sayer realizes that the position involves treating patients suffering from conditions ranging from Tourette’s Syndrome to Parkinson’s Disease, he’s initially reluctant to take on chronic cases with little hope of recovery.

But his outsider’s point of view also enables him to take a new look at patients abandoned as hopeless, and he undertakes some research on a core group of residents who were all stricken with the encephalitis “sleeping sickness,” that attacked some five million people around the world over a ten-year period. In particular, Sayer focuses on one patient named Leonard Lowe, played by Robert De Niro, who’s been living at Bainbridge since he was 20. With the permission of Leonard’s mother, Sayer begins trial and error testing with him to find some way inside his patient’s impenetrable condition. And as he delves deeper into his patients’ lives, Sayer also has to confront the truth about his own self-imposed emotional isolation.

Also featured in supporting roles are Julie Kavner as a sympathetic nurse, John Heard and Bradley Whitford as a pair of skeptical doctors, Anne Meara and Judith Malina as other encephalitis patients, Penelope Ann Miller as a hospital visitor who takes a liking to Leonard, and Max von Sydow in a cameo appearance as a retired doctor whose early patient assessments prove to be both grim and incorrect.


This Must Be the Place (2011)

This week’s indie is This Must Be the Place, a quirky comedy-drama from 2011 written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino.

Adding yet another remarkable addition to his cinematic gallery of astonishing eccentrics, Sean Penn stars as Cheyenne, a former 80s rock icon now living as a semi-recluse in Dublin, Ireland.  Looking like a daffy, middle-aged Edward Scissorhands with his star power dimmed to freak show wattage, Cheyenne began his retreat from peak fame following the death of two teen-aged fans who committed suicide listening to his music, a tragic incident that has had a devastating impact on his self-confidence as an artist—and as a human being.  Despite the devoted support of his down to earth wife Jane, played by Francis McDormand, Cheyenne is clearly mired in a seemingly impenetrable mid-life crisis.  Yet, he’s actually much less “out of it” than people might suspect; he’s still capable of sizing up pretty quickly, and accurately, both people and situations surrounding him, and his steadfast moral compass will in the end prove to be his saving grace. One day, he receives news that his father, an orthodox Jew from whom he’s been long estranged, is soon to die; suddenly, Cheyenne’s surprising origins begin to come into focus.  Unwittingly embarking on a quest to achieve final vindication for his father’s decades-old Holocaust humiliation, Cheyenne finds himself tracking his family history to far flung corners of the world, a journey that becomes more about self-discovery than about uncovering long-buried family history.

Judd Hirsch is featured as a veteran Nazi hunter; there are also cameo appearances by Harry Dean Stanton and Talking Heads superstar David Byrne, portraying himself as an old friend from Cheyenne’s glory days.

An Italian, French and Irish co-production, This Must Be the Place marks the first English language film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino.  Serving as jury president at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Sean Penn approached Sorrentino about working together after screening IL DIVO, Sorrentino’s acclaimed film about Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, which took the Cannes Jury Prize that year.  Finding inspiration for Cheyenne’s character with Robert Smith of The Cure, Sorrentino had long been intrigued with the stories of Nazi war criminals hiding in plain sight, later arriving at the idea of a faded rock & roll star as the most unlikely of Nazi hunters to give a familiar genre an incongruous new spin.  The plot point concerning Cheyenne’s traumatization from the suicide deaths of two young fans stems from an actual 1985 incident involving a duo of young men who were allegedly motivated to take their own lives after listening to a Judas Priest song.  Returning to the Cannes Film Festival with This Must Be the Place in 2011, Sorrentino’s film competed for the Palme d’Or, and later screened in the Spotlight section of the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.  Among Sorrentino’s recent projects is The Young Pope, the 10-part HBO series starring Jude Law, along with The New Pope which continues the Vatican-based saga.

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