'The Sapience' ('La Sapienza'): Locarno Review

LA SAPIENZA Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno

LA SAPIENZA Still - H 2014

A dense, ideas-packed tour of Baroque architecture and contemporary — or timeless? — human emotions.

U.S.-born, France-based director Eugene Green's latest stars Fabrizio Rongione ('Two Days, One Night') as an architect in awe of his Baroque-era colleague Francesco Borromini

A married Francophone architect flees to Switzerland and then Italy so he can follow in the footsteps of his hero, Roman Baroque master Francesco Borromini, in The Sapience (La Sapienza), the latest highbrow feature from U.S.-born, France-based director Eugene Green (The Portuguese Nun). Talky and cerebral, this theatrical drama juxtaposes space and light and explores ghosts from the past and love in the present. It will appeal to a small contingent of connoisseurs on the festival circuit and in ultra-niche release in France.

Green, a baroque-theater expert as well as an occasional filmmaker, is a proponent of the artificiality of theater (and, by extension, film) and attaches a lot of importance to dialogue, which, though heightened and non-natural, can provide viewers with direct access to the characters’ thoughts and emotions. The underlying idea is, of course, that the anarchy of real life — which would mean endlessly meandering conversations with no real point and series of events that often have no clear causes and effects — would distract from what the piece is trying to say. With this in mind, The Sapience, in which characters think nothing of speechifying directly to the camera and Green and cinematographer Raphael O’Byrne occasionally opt for filming things from unusually theatrical angles, makes more sense.

The story involves a practically burnt-out architect in early middle age, Alexandre (Dardenne brothers regular Fabrizio Rongione), who has traveled to Ticino, the Italian-speaking southern part of Switzerland, with his wife, Alienor (Christelle Prot Landman, a Green veteran). Alexandre’s great example is 17th-century architect Borromini, who was born in Ticino but whose major works can mostly be found in the Italian capital.

Their travels are meant to allow Alexandre to maybe finish a long-dormant work on Borromini and inspire him again after years of dull day-to-day concessions he’s had to make as an architect. Their plans are upset when, on the Lake Maggiore, they meet two teenage siblings, Goffredo (plucky newcomer Ludovico Succio), who hopes to study architecture at university the next year, and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro, The Solitude of Prime Numbers), who suffers from mysterious dizzy spells. The film then splits into two as Alienor forces the initially unwilling Alexandre to make his research trip to Italy with Goffredo instead of her (this part of the film is in Italian), and she rather enigmatically decides to stay in the same village as Lavinia, so they can converse every day (in French).

What follows on the male side are both Alexandre’s impromptu lessons on Borromini and his rival and mirror-image, Bernini, and novice Goffredo’s obvious reminders of some of the basic tenets of architecture that Alexandre seems to have forgotten ("spaces are nothing but emptiness, which needs to be filled with light and people"). Green cuts back and forth between the men and women, who converse about their feelings and the strong connections to their respective men, though clearly Alexandre and Alienor are going through a rough patch when the film starts.

The Sapience juxtaposes insights on how people are emotionally connected with ruminations on the buildings and spaces through which they move, in which they live and, in Alexandre’s case, which they also create. Green thus weaves a particularly dense thematic tapestry in which the past constantly influences the present, something reinforced when several ghosts from the couple’s shared history surface after the midway point. If anything, the film seems to suggest that all constructions exist in a continuum, with at least one leg in the past and another not necessarily in the present or the future but in eternity (in the case of buildings) or at least a kind of eternal truth (in the case of humans and their relationships).

Despite the complex themes and countless allusions to art, religion, psychology and medicine, some flashback/dream sequences in the film’s second half draw the parallels between Alexandre and Borromini a little too heavy-handedly, and the scenes with Alienor and Lavinia feel a bit too repetitive and easy, as if Green was more interested in the men than the women. The insertion of Green himself as a Chaldean Christian who speaks Aramaic — it’s not every day a film features someone who could watch Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ without subtitles — also feels overly self-conscious. But those are minor quibbles in a work of this ambition and magnitude in terms of its ideas (if not its budget, which was clearly modest but used wisely, with the Borromini-designed locations and spectacular lakeside landscapes in Switzerland offering much in way of pre-existing eye candy). Some unexpected, offbeat moments of humor, notably involving an angry Australian tourist (Jon Firman), also help lighten the otherwise very heavy tone.

For the record: The Sapience is named after the Saint Yves at La Sapienza Church in Rome (built on the premises of the Sapienza University), which was designed by Borromini, though it also brings to mind Green’s own 1970s troupe Theatre de la Sapience, which resurrected French Baroque plays with the intention of doing justice to the historically correct diction and delivery of the texts.

Production companies: Mact Productions, La Sarraz Productions

Cast: Fabrizio Rongione, Christelle Prot Landman, Ludovico Succio, Arianna Nastro, Jon Firman

Writer-Director: Eugene Green

Producers: Martine De Clermont-Tonnerre, Alessandro Borrelli

Director of photography: Raphael O’Byrne

Production designer: Giorgio Barullo

Costume designer: Agnes Noden

Editor: Valerie Loiseleux

No rating, 107 minutes