La Sapienza

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La Sapienza, drama, not rated, in French and Ital­ian with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3 chiles

Eugène Green is an Amer­i­can ex­pa­tri­ate direc­tor. He moved to France in the 1960s, and you get the feel­ing he would have liked to move to a dif­fer­ent cen­tury as well, per­haps to what­ever era in which the word “sapi­ence” was last in com­mon use.

The word es­sen­tially means wis­dom, and there’s plenty of that ab­sorbed as Green, his char­ac­ters, and his cam­era (in the in­spired hands of Raphaël O’Byrne) traipse through ex­quis­ite Ital­ian cathe­drals, drink­ing in the work of the 17th-cen­tury Baroque ar­chi­tect Francesco Bor­ro­mini. In fact, the char­ac­ters them­selves of­ten seem to em­body ar­chi­tec­ture, as Green di­rects them in a static, im­mo­bile act­ing style that has them some­times ad­dress­ing the cam­era di­rectly, of­ten not talk­ing at all.

Per­versely, it is this man­nered style that draws us in to the emo­tional lives of the char­ac­ters. The prin­ci­pals are Alexan­dre Sch­midt (Fabrizio Ron­gione), a suc­cess­ful Swiss ar­chi­tect, and his wife, Aliénor (Chris­telle Prot Land­man), a psy­chol­o­gist and so­cial sci­en­tist. At a cri­sis in his ca­reer and life, Alexan­dre takes Aliénor to Italy — to the town of Stresa, on Lake Mag­giore — where Alexan­dre hopes to recharge his bat­ter­ies by re­sum­ing a long-de­ferred plan to write a book about Bor­ro­mini. There, they meet Gof­fredo (Lu­dovico Suc­cio), a young ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dent, and his sis­ter Lavinia (Ari­anna Nas­tro), a girl who suf­fers from un­ex­plained dizzy spells.

Aliénor con­vinces a re­luc­tant Alexan­dre to take Gof­fredo with him on his re­search jour­ney to Turin and Rome, while she re­mains with the ail­ing Lavinia in Stresa, and we shut­tle back and forth be­tween the two.

Ar­chi­tec­ture has been called frozen mu­sic, and the great Bri­tish comic Michael Flan­ders quipped that mu­sic could be con­sid­ered de­frosted ar­chi­tec­ture. This comes to mind as we wit­ness the grad­ual thaw­ing of Alexan­dre as he tours Bor­ro­mini’s mas­ter­pieces with his young charge. Alexan­dre de­scribes the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bor­ro­mini, the “mys­ti­cal” vi­sion­ary, and his great ri­val Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the “ra­tio­nal” Baroque mas­ter. “I am Bernini,” he says wist­fully. The teacher be­comes the stu­dent, as young Gof­fredo reawak­ens the ar­chi­tec­tural ide­al­ism of the dispir­ited Alexan­dre with his talk of “spa­ces to be filled with light and peo­ple.”

A few scenes are in­tru­sions, and not al­ways wel­come ones, as when a buf­foon­ish Aussie barges into the pic­ture and de­mands en­trance to a locked chapel. But there is a bizarrely com­pelling scene in which the direc­tor, Green, ap­pears on a park bench at night as a Chaldean refugee from Iran and gives Aliénor a re­as­sur­ing read­ing of her stars. Aliénor also ab­sorbs valu­able wis­dom, or sapi­ence, from the teenage Lavinia. There’s some­thing oddly ap­peal­ing about the Ital­ian sib­lings, who have the slightly self-con­scious charm of char­ac­ters in an Eric Rohmer movie.

In the end it’s all about space and light, form and mean­ing, pas­sion and ideals. We’re never too old to learn, and never too young to know.

— Jonathan Richards

Melt with you: Lu­dovico Suc­cio, Chris­telle Prot Land­man, and Fabrizio Ron­gione

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