The characters in “La Sapienza,” Eugène Green’s new film, tend to look directly into the camera when they speak, to speak clearly and grammatically, and to refrain from interrupting one another. The rhythm of the editing is similarly deliberate: The camera looks at one person, then another, and patiently surveys a landscape or the interior of an old and magnificent building. This graceful, unhurried style, with its blend of austerity and artifice and its roots in classical French theatrical traditions, is Green’s signature. American by birth and ardently European by residence and vocation, he elevates formal decorum to a moral principle.
“La Sapienza,” quiet and conversational as it seems, is a passionate defense of – and perhaps also an elegy for – an old and dignified ideal of civilization.
And also, as such, an escape from the modern world.
Though set in the present, “La Sapienza,” which takes its name from a venerable university in Rome, finds inspiration and sustenance in the past, specifically in the 17th century. Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione), a coldly rational Swiss-born architect living in France, finds himself in a state of professional and emotional malaise. He and his wife, Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman), a social scientist, retreat to the Piedmontese town of Stresa, where Alexandre plans to begin researching and writing a long-deferred book on the Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. During a stroll along the shore of Lake Maggiore, Alexandre and Aliénor meet Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) and Goffredo (Ludovico Succio), teenage siblings who become their protégés. Goffredo, who wants to study architecture, accompanies Alexandre to Turin and Rome, while Aliénor remains in Stresa with Lavinia, who suffers from a mysterious nervous disorder.
Emotions are held in check. Voices are never raised, and passions are described from a distance rather than expressed overtly. Most of the conversations are about art, history, literature and of course architecture, but there are inklings of more volatile and intimate matters. Green, who shows up briefly on a park bench to dispense wisdom (in syntactically impeccable, heavily accented French), has more on his mind than old churches. The story he has to tell, at times barely perceptible but moving all the same, is about a marriage in crisis. It is also about the fate of the idea clumsily translated into English as “sapience” and embodied by artists and craftsmen like Borromini. Where, in the 21st-century West, are the sources of enlightenment and wisdom?
Green’s response is quietly but unmistakably polemical. His conservatism – rarely articulated outright but implicit in every meticulous frame and carefully wrought sentence – is intriguing and provocative. His films amount to a protest against the vulgarity and velocity of 21st-century life, from which he, like Alexandre, seeks refuge in the symmetries and harmonies of Borromini and his contemporaries.
The chance to contemplate Borromini’s arches, ornaments and elliptical forms is both an incidental pleasure of “La Sapienza” and the whole point. The movie is an unapologetically rarefied undertaking and at the same time a gracious and inviting film. And it embodies an elegant and melancholy paradox: What looks like tourism is really the pursuit of truth and beauty, and vice versa.
B+ Cast: Fabrizio Rongione, Christelle Prot Landman, Ludovico Succio
Director: Eugène Green
Length: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Chapel Hill: Chelsea.