Par­al­lels of the Baroque

The movie ‘ La Sapienza’ reaches across cen­turies

Los Angeles Times - - CULTURE MONSTER - BY DAVID NG david. ng@ latimes. com

Widely re­garded as one of the most im­por­tant ar­chi­tec­tural achieve­ments of the Baroque era, the Church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome stands out for its bold jux­ta­po­si­tion of geo­met­ric shapes, its spi­ral dome and its re­splen­dent, lightf illed in­te­rior. Though not a large church by Euro­pean stan­dards, it nonethe­less re­mains the supreme ac­com­plish­ment of its cre­ator: 17th cen­tury Ital­ian ar­chi­tect Francesco Bor­ro­mini, whose prodi­gious tal­ents un­for­tu­nately brought him more mis­ery than joy. He com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1667 at the age of 67.

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza still op­er­ates as a church and as the home of Rome’s mu­nic­i­pal ar­chives. It also plays a key role in “La Sapienza,” open­ing Fri­day, a fic­tional movie that ex­plores how Bor­ro­mini’s ar­chi­tec­ture changes the life of a con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tect who him­self is suf­fer­ing from an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis.

The movie’s ti­tle refers to Bor­ro­mini’s church but also evokes the some­what ar­chaic Ital­ian word used dur­ing the Re­nais­sance.

“When peo­ple try to de­fine it, they ei­ther say it is ‘ knowl­edge’ or ‘ wis­dom.’ But for me it’s knowl­edge that leads to wis­dom,” writer- di­rec­tor Eugène Green said.

The Paris- based f ilm­maker is a Baroque spe­cial­ist who once led the French stage com­pany Théâtre de la Sapi­ence. He re­called that as a young stu­dent pur­su­ing art history, he dreamed of mak­ing a biopic of Bor­ro­mini, us­ing the real ar­chi­tec­ture as a back­drop.

“He’s an artist who didn’t make con­ces­sions,” the di­rec­tor said by phone from Paris, in an in­ter­view con­ducted in French. “It’s a mys­ti­cal ar­chi­tec­ture. In the con­text of Ro­man Baroque ar­chi­tec­ture, it’s a pared- down style — even the dec­o­ra­tive as­pects have a pur­pose in the larger form. I con­ceived my own artis­tic work in that man­ner.”

Once he be­gan mak­ing movies in the late ’ 90s, Green re­al­ized he had no in­ter­est in cos­tume dra­mas.

“As soon as you put a pe­riod cos­tume on an ac­tor, they try to act dif­fer­ently, like they’re in the theater,” he said.

In­stead, his films at­tempt to cap­ture the in­ter­nal essence of the ac­tors by hav­ing them speak in blank, emo­tion­less tones, of­ten look­ing di­rectly at the cam­era.

The idio­syn­cratic style, which re­calls film­mak­ers Robert Bres­son and Ya­su­jiro Ozu, can be un­set­tling, Green con­ceded, but it is a de­lib­er­ately anti- psy­cho­log­i­cal ap­proach that em­pha­sizes the spir­i­tual na­ture of the spo­ken word.

“La Sapienza” opens with stun­ning shots of the Ital­ian coun­try­side and Baroque ar­chi­tec­ture, only to tran­si­tion to an in­dus­trial cityscape com­prised of heinous Post­mod­ern hous­ing projects and of­fice build­ings. These are the cre­ations of cel­e­brated French ar­chi­tect Alexan­dre Sch­midt ( Fabrizio Ron­gione, seen last year in the Dar­denne broth­ers’ “Two Days, One Night” op­po­site Mar­ion Cotil­lard). Though lauded by his peers, the ar­chi­tect is deeply un­happy and has stopped talk­ing to his wife ( Chris­telle Prot Land­man), a so­cial psy­chol­o­gist.

The cou­ple trav­els to Italy, where Alexan­dre hopes to re­sume work­ing on a long- post­poned study of Bor­ro­mini. But they are side­tracked when they en­counter a young brother and sis­ter ( Ludovico Suc­cio and Ari­anna Nas­tro), who are deal­ing with emo­tional prob­lems of their own.

The movie stops in Rome and Turin as well as smaller towns, such as Stresa, Italy, and Bis­sone, Switzer­land, the lat­ter of which is the birthplace of Bor­ro­mini.

Shoot­ing in some of Bor­ro­mini’s churches didn’t come cheap, ac­cord­ing to the f ilm­maker. The scenes in Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza were par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult as dif­fer­ent sec­tions are con­trolled by dif­fer­ent or­ga­ni­za­tions, each de­mand­ing thou­sands of eu­ros to shoot.

Green was born and raised in Brook­lyn and moved to Europe as a young man in 1968, even­tu­ally set­tling in Paris. He re­tains lit­tle love for his birth coun­try, re­fer­ring to it with a touch of mis­chievous hu­mor as “Bar­baria.”

In the movie, Bor­ro­mini’s death is re­counted in a long se­quence il­lu­mi­nated by can­dle­light. Although Bor­ro­mini was one of the lead­ing Ital­ian ar­chi­tects of the 17th cen­tury, his ca­reer fell short of his ri­val Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was more po­lit­i­cally as­tute and landed big­ger com­mis­sions.

The melan­cholic Bor­ro­mini was of­ten dif­fi­cult to work with and lost work as a re­sult, ac­cord­ing to Kristof­fer Neville, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of art history at UC River­side.

At the same time, he was “very cre­ative at a level that no one else was,” Neville said. Af­ter a pe­riod of pro­fes­sional dif­fi­culty, the ar­chi­tect im­paled him­self on a sword and died a few days later.

Green knows some­thing about pro­fes­sional strug­gle.

“I have a real prob­lem work­ing in France be­cause of the spir­i­tual na­ture of my films,” he said. “In France, sec­u­lar­ism is the of­fi­cial re­li­gion. It’s al­most like North Korea. All who con­tra­dict the of­fi­cial re­li­gion are ban­ished.”

Nonethe­less, the di­rec­tor is al­ready shoot­ing his next movie in Paris: a story of a young man’s search for his fa­ther, with the some­what bib­li­cal ti­tle “The Son of Joseph.”

Vit­to­rio Zunino Celotto Getty I mages

DI­REC­TOR Eu­gene Green’s “La Sapienza” re­vives the work of Baroque ar­chi­tect Francesco Bor­ro­mini.

Kino Lorber I nc.

CHURCH

of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome, built in the 1600s.

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