La Sapienza Review
Eugène Green's singular filmmaking style and his obsession with the baroque, with Monteverdi, with Robert Bresson and Manoel de Oliviera, are all in evidence once again in the director's latest film, La Sapienza. Green has established a technique that can be unsettling and mannered, but at the same time oddly compelling and involving, all the more so since there are some genuinely interesting ideas he wants to explore and communicate. The ideas alone could be vague, sketchy and difficult to articulate in a film without sounding preachy and coming across as pretentious and miserable, and even Bresson wasn't always entirely successful in avoiding this trap on a number of occasions. Green however seems to have developed the most simple and perfect of means to express his ideas, and they come through clearly in La Sapienza.
Most of the characters in the film have deep problems in their lives, finding themselves trapped in conditions not necessarily of their own making, but illness, loss and professional concerns has in a way hardened their souls and led them to retreat from 'the light' of living as full human beings. In Green's world that's not however explicitly stated as such, the characters much less expressive of their inner lives or indeed even in their professional lives. Aliénor (Christelle Prot) is an anthropologist and her husband Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione) is an architect, both evidently of high moral standing. When rebuffed and disillusioned with work situations they decide to withdraw and go away to contemplate matters in Switzerland, in Bissone, the birthplace of the "mystical baroque" architect, Francesco Borromini (b. 1599). There, by the lake, they meet and form an attachment with a young couple, a brother and sister, Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) after they see the young girl stumble, suffering from an unknown malady.
Aliénor is content to spend more time in Bissone, visiting Lavinia during her recovery, discussing literature, drama and ideas with the young girl in French. She suggests that her husband Alexandre, who is planning to write a book about Borromini, take Goffredo with him on a trip down to Rome, since the young man hopes to study in Venice as an architect. Alexandre is quietly resistant to the idea, but along the way, visiting works designed by Borromini and some of his colleagues, contemporaries and rivals, the two men also find a way through art to open up a communication not only with each other, but with themselves.
Evidently from the above description, it's difficult to communicate effectively just what Eugène Green is trying to achieve in his films, or how he actually manages it. Using the style of "models" rather than actors - an uncommon approach that even admirers of Robert Bresson would be reluctant to mimic - the slow, halting delivery of dialogue feels static, self-conscious and stiff, the actors standing or sitting still and speaking directly face-on into the camera. It's by no means a natural way for people to behave, and in fact it ought to come across as fake and pretentious. Calling a film La Sapienza ('Wisdom') doesn't bode well either (the title however is also related to the Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza church in Rome built by Borromini, as well as more generally meaning 'learning') and yet like Bresson, Green has a disarming way of making this work, partly because he genuinely has something important and meaningful to say.
The Bressonian technique is of course intended to get that message across in the most direct manner possible, without distraction or 'interpretation' that could otherwise be implied by the gestures of an actor. Nuance and interpretation is therefore placed firmly on the viewer much as it would be someone reading a novel, or more accurately, reading the dialogue of a play. As a film however, equal attention is given to the visual aspect, and the surroundings and Swiss and Italian locations - stunningly filmed by Green's regular DoP Raphael O'Byrne - evidently play an important part in a film where architecture is one of the means by which that message is communicated.
It's a measure of the open simplicity of this technique that message comes across as clearly as it does. The spaces in our lives should not be filled with darkness or ghosts, but if we learn from the beauty of a Monteverdi madrigal or from the baroque architecture of Borromini, the space can be filled with light and beauty, opening the way to love. There is also reciprocal lessons to be learned between old and new, between the older couple and the younger one, and it's this dialectic that renews and refreshes, opens up communication beyond language (in a film that itself switches between French and Italian). Green of course indulges in a little mysticism here as well (and some awkward attempts at humour), customarily making an otherworldly cameo appearance here as a Chaldean. Ending with a pan of the camera up to the heavens could also be seen as being overly suggestive and a simplistic way to put across Green's transcendental ambitions, but it's an open and contemplative image that strikes the right note and lingers in the mind.