The unresolvable tension between logic and feeling animates Eugene Green’s “La Sapienza,” an exquisite rumination on life, love and art that tickles the heart and mind in equal measure. The fifth feature by the American-born, Paris-based Green compromises none of the filmmaker’s willful esoterica as it charts the intersecting fates of four present-day characters transformed by the work of two 17th-century artistic giants: the Swiss-Italian architect Francesco Borromini and the French playwright Moliere. But with its surplus of sun-drenched Italian vistas and soul-stirring architectural wonders, Green’s latest also offers a marketable arthouse hook — which helps to explain why it has been the most widely seen movie of his career on the festival circuit, and the first to garner a commercial American release (via Kino Lorber). Audiences queuing up will discover one of the most original voices in French cinema in full, beguiling bloom.
The 67-year-old Green, who has lived in France since the late 1960s, didn’t start directing films until the 2000s, and perhaps for that very reason his sui generis vision seemed fully developed from the start. His debut feature, 2001’s “Toutes les nuits,” was an inspired riff on Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education” about two childhood friends torn between academia and experience during the turbulent 1960s and ’70s; his subsequent “The Living World” (2003) was an ingeniously lo-fi fairy tale involving a brave knight with a wooden sword and a fearsome lion played by a Labrador retriever.
There and in the movies that followed, Green’s players stared directly into the camera while delivering their lines in a deliberate, almost (but not quite) affect-less cadence, baroque music proliferated on the soundtracks, and everyone dressed in primary colors and sensible shoes. The director’s background in theater was obvious, as was the influence of filmmakers like Bresson, Rivette and Manoel de Oliveira. But Green’s most formative inspiration has always been the baroque, which makes “La Sapienza” feel, in part, like an exercise in self-portraiture, and a statement of artistic principle.
The movie begins in Paris, where a noted architect, Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione), is receiving a career achievement award. Onstage, he defends himself as a “materialist” who regards factories as “the modern cathedrals,” while Green cuts from ecstatic Roman vistas to bleak French industrial expanses — as if to suggest that, somewhere, Karl Marx is smiling. Offstage, Alexandre is a sullen man, with a long, drooping face that seems poised to slide right off his cheekbones and a kind but distant wife, Alienor (Christelle Prot Landman), who devotes herself to behavioral studies of obscure communities.
But there is more to both characters than first meets the eye. As a younger man, Alexandre was infatuated with the work of Borromini, the great eccentric genius of Roman baroque architecture, and determined to follow in his idiosyncratic footsteps. But in his own work, Alexandre readily admits, he could never quite surrender himself to the “mysticism” of his idol, whose intricate geometries seemed to hail from somewhere beyond the physical world. And so, rather like Salieri gazing upon Mozart, what began as admiration coarsened into envy.
When Alexandre’s latest urban renewal project hits a snag — the soulless backers want more population density and less public space — he decamps to Italy, inspired to finish writing a book on Borromini he began long ago. And this is where “La Sapienza” deepens into something more than merely a wry comedy of bourgeois manners and cultural politics. In Stresa, Borromini’s birthplace, Alexandre and Alienor meet a teenage brother and sister, Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro), who resemble the older couple in younger days — or the children they might, but for a few cruel twists of fate, have brought into the world. He is an aspiring architect, as open to the spiritual as Alexandre is closed to it. She is waiflike and frail, prone to mysterious fainting spells and separation anxiety over her university-bound sibling.
What follows is orchestrated by Green with the sly touch of a master. Alexandre is shanghaied by Alienor into taking on Goffredo as a kind of apprentice, and together they travel to Rome, where they will visit several of Borromini’s towering achievements (including the Church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, from which the movie takes its title). And as they go, Green tugs playfully at the form of the film. At times, we are in a biopic of Borromini, consisting of just the architect’s buildings, some voiceover, and a few fugitive arms and legs occasionally bisecting the meticulously composed, symmetrical frames (the cinematographer is Green’s longtime collaborator Raphael O’Byrne). At others, we are in the realm of documentary, as Green lingers on the buildings themselves, long after the actors have left the frame, following Borromini’s majestic curves upward towards the place where edifice meets sky (or, if you prefer, the heavens). Meanwhile, back in Stresa, Alienor and Lavinia attend a performance of Moliere’s final play, “Le Malade imaginaire,” and find in it an analogue — and maybe an answer — to Lavinia’s own strange ailment.
In Green’s films, it’s hard not to marvel at his command of a very particular tone, how all the Brechtian devices that seem like they should push the viewer away instead foster an acutely intimate ambience, and how the actors’ mannered performance style conveys (rather than obscures) real depths of emotion. Landman, who could be considered Green’s muse (she starred in three of his previous features and four of his shorts), is a radiant comic presence with wide, absorbent eyes that seem unusually attune to the world around her. Her Alienor always seems on the verge of some sharp exclamation, but then tempers her words to cushion the blow, especially on Alexandre, whose ego is as fragile as it is oversized (and who’s played to irritable perfection by Rongione, the husband of Marion Cotillard’s downsized factory worker in the Dardenne brothers’ “Two Days, One Night”). There is a profound sadness in their relationship that cuts through their implacable surfaces, and also, finally, the hope of renewal. Newcomers Succio and Nastro are both a delight as the siblings whose sense of magic in the world has yet to be corrupted by age and experience.
“In all temples, there is a presence,” comments Goffredo, adding that it is the architect’s job to summon said presence with light. Green doesn’t give a specific name to that entity, but he has nevertheless made a more deeply spiritual film than a hundred overtly religious dramas — a movie less about divinity than about divine inspiration. What fascinates him above all is the lifespan of culture, what disappears (languages, civilizations) and what remains, eternal and unchanging, in the face of fashionable trends and self-righteous cultural gatekeepers (which get a sly roasting here in a hilarious sequence set at the Rome’s Villa Medici). Green even affords himself a cameo as a Chaldean Christian from Iraq, the last exponent of a presumed-extinct lineage, waylaid between here and there, then and now, searching for a home. It’s a fitting alter ego for a filmmaker who himself seems at once of his time and distinctly outside it, and who, in “La Sapienza,” summons a feeling that is positively incandescent.