Visions of Light
By Michael Koresky

La Sapienza
Dir. Eugène Green, France, Cinema Guild

Critics ought to do a better job in communicating just how open-ended, curious, and worldly the films of New York–born, seventeenth-century-loving, strict Francophone Eugène Green are. It’s become standard to start discussion of Green by pointing out that his tastes run to the Baroque. This instantly sets his films at a distance, not only for the perceived historical remove it creates but also because it positions him as somehow terribly specialized. That Green directs in a precisely constructed, and often highly unusual, way that reads to most viewers, for lack of a better term, as “art cinema,” only furthers the speculation that his work is precious and closed off. His lovely, unexpectedly moving La Sapienza may use a philosophical and aesthetic inquiry into the work of Baroque architect Francesco Borromini as a springboard, but what the film is really about are the natural elements of living, applicable to then or now: love, aging, grief, and spirituality, individually and all at once, and how those elements inhabit our lives.

As a film about inhabitation it’s also about space. Movies are always concerned with this in one way or another; as Manny Farber helpfully pointed out, “a film cannot exist outside of its spatial form.” But La Sapienza takes space as its literal subject, how the environments we build for ourselves, either architecturally or emotionally, create room for the known and the unknown. As evidenced by his alternately playful and high-minded films like Le nouveau monde, Le pont des arts, and The Portuguese Nun, Green is scrupulous about the movie frame, with every element in it, especially the actors themselves, placed in such a way as to leave little doubt that they are meant to be looked at in a very particular manner. When actors are in dialogue in his films, why are they often standing stock-still, staring straight into the camera, in a succession of static shots that seemingly emphasize an unnatural stiffness? Perhaps because it makes them seem like full beings rather than mere characters—soulful figures just waiting to be filled with meaning, much like the rooms, buildings, and movie frames they inhabit.

Our vessels for La Sapienza’s journey are architect Alexandre Schmid (Fabrizio Rongione) and his wife, Aliénor (Christelle Prot), a sociologist. A well-respected figure, he is receiving a lifetime achievement award in the northern Italian town of Stresa as the film opens, though we soon learn this French secularist is glum from professional dissatisfaction. The contemporary architect builds factories, not churches, and due to environmental pollution and climate change he must be concerned more with the public’s physical health than its spiritual well being. Having recently won a bid for a new housing project, for which the board wants many changes, Alexandre is in the midst of a crisis, exacerbated by a seeming distance between him and Aliénor—a distance visually exemplified by the identical glasses of blood-red wine and dreary plates of aspic set between them at dinner. When they speak, they are notably less natural in manner than Alexandre was when he gave his award acceptance speech. This deliberate, occasionally near catatonic way of delivering dialogue is a Green specialty, but it takes on its own separate significance here, emphasizing its characters’ disconnectedness from their selves and their own passions. The two walk like phantoms around Stresa, our simultaneous intimacy and dissociation from them heightened by Green’s penchant for focusing on close-ups of their feet as they enter frames. They are disturbed from their dreamlike perambulations when they happen upon a teenage brother and sister, Goffredo and Lavinia, when the latter collapses from exhaustion on the street and the husband and wife offer assistance. It’s an initially unwelcome disruption that will prove most beneficial.

In a cosmic coincidence, the eighteen-year-old Goffredo is studying to be an architect, a revelation that largely disgusts the jaded Alexandre, who is at first brusque with the boy. Even more off-putting to the older man, the fresh-faced Goffredo is impossibly earnest, speaking for the spiritual sustenance that architecture can bring to people’s lives. One of his great visions is a church that can house all religions—so the different denominations “can be united by light.” (Aliénor inquires, “What about those who don’t believe in God?”—but this doesn’t seem to have crossed the kid’s mind yet.) In a sly move that proves she knows what ails her husband and that she can potentially fix it, Aliénor takes it upon herself to invite Goffredo to accompany Alexandre on his upcoming trip to Rome, where he will be visiting and studying Francesco Borromini’s buildings; she will stay back in Stresa with Lavinia, to help the young woman recuperate. To call the resulting voyage through Italy of Alexandre and Goffredo, say, “a journey toward mutual friendship and enlightenment” would not be incorrect but would also simplify and shortchange the quite moving rejuvenation that occurs. Through the spaces between the characters and those between the men and the interior landscapes they encounter, Green arrives at a place of artistic passion and solace that feels completely earned and wholly unsentimental.

You don’t have to know much about Francesco Borromini to be moved by his architecture, just like you don’t have to know very much about the Baroque period that so captivates Green to enjoy his films. The film borrows its title from Borromini’s seventeenth-century Roman Catholic church Sant’vo alla Sapienza, renowned for its curved design, Star of David mapping, and corkscrew dome. The title also, of course, applies to the Merriam-Webster definition of sapience—wisdom, sagacity—and charts its characters growth toward knowledge, both of the self and the world around them. Alexandre and Goffredo are learning from each other as they go, and we in the audience are lucky enough to learn from them as well. We are privileged, for instance, to join them, en route to Rome, in Turin, where they visit Guarino Guarini’s Chapel of the Holy Shroud, the interior of which is revealed in a slow, gorgeous camera tilt, which makes us feel like we’re floating up into its cupola with heavenly grace. La Sapienza is Green’s first digitally shot feature, and moments like these, in which we can practically feel the lightness of the camera, make Green’s transition to video seem natural.

The relationship between Alexandre and Goffredo is often front and center, but the one between Alexandre and Aliénor, married for nineteen years, is most crucial here. Because the couple is separated for much of the narrative, their story is parceled out bit by bit, a main source of their sadness (a tragedy involving a baby many years earlier) only revealed in the last third of the film. This adds new heft and shape to a narrative that makes gestures to both the playful (some business with a blustery, self-entitled Australian tourist) and the hypnotic (a gorgeous, late-film dream sequence in which Alexandre envisions Borromini’s suicide by candlelight), while never swerving from its trajectory toward a climactic catharsis by art. These characters carry heavy burdens, and Green sees it as his mission to alleviate them. “What do ghosts need to find peace?” Alexandre asks near the end of the film. The answer is simple, and it, he, has
been staring at us—literally—throughout the film. An architect, to give them light.