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