“La Sapienza” is a tranquil visual meditation on the art and philosophy of architecture. Whenever it calmly gazes upon those gorgeous architectural works shown on the screen, we cannot help but marvel at the sublime beauty felt from their spaces and structures as appreciating the fine details in their grand, ambitious designs. While the characters in the film are basically constructs for talking and discussing about metaphysical ideas including art, knowledge, spirituality, and existence, their conversations are interesting to listen none the less as we come to ponder more on its beautiful sights, and the movie is also humorous at times even though it keeps its face straight just like its utterly serious characters.
As the opening scene looks around the urban landscapes of a modern city, we are introduced to Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione), a middle-aged architect at the peak of his career. He has just received an industry award to honor his lifelong achievement, and his acceptance speech emphasizes on how he has been sticking to his utilitarian philosophy with a touch of atheism throughout his esteemed career. He usually prefers to build more practical facilities like hospitals and factories, and he mentions during his speech that he once rejected a request for church design because it was against his longtime materialistic belief.
But he has recently felt hollow and dissatisfied with his career which seems to be going nowhere. When he has a meeting with his latest client, he becomes frustrated as the client demands more compromises on the initial design he would rather want to keep intact. He and his social psychologist wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman) mostly look fine when they are together, but we feel the mood of distance between them as they dryly interact with each other in their comfortable but sterile apartment.
Along with his wife, Alexandre decides to take a trip to refresh his mind – and their relationship, perhaps. Travelling around Switzerland and Italy, they are going to look around a number of famous architectural works built during the Roman Baroque period of the 17th century, and their trip starts with the southern Switzerland town which was the birthplace of Francesco Borromini, one of the leading Italian architects active during that period.
While they spend some time in Stresa, a small town on the shores of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, Alexandre and Aliénor happen to encounter young siblings named Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Laviana (Arianna Nastro). Goffredo is aspiring to be an architect someday while preparing for his college education in Venice, and Lavinia is a fragile but lively girl who has spent most of her life at their home due to her ill health. They look happy together, but they will soon be separated from each other due to Goffredo’s upcoming departure to Venice, and we learn later that this change is particularly difficult for Goffredo, who cares a lot about his sister’s welfare as her dear brother.
After spending more time with Goffredo and Lavinia and then learning about Goffredo’s youthful passion on architecture, Aliénor persuades her husband to take Goffredo instead of her during the rest of the trip. While she hangs around Lavinia, Alexandre continues the trip along with Goffredo, who is certainly pleased to have such a fantastic opportunity like this thanks to his accidental friends.
Before going to Rome, Alexandre and Goffredo drop by Turin first, and they go to the Royal Church of San Lorenzo, whose architectural design by Guarino Guarini was considerably influenced from Borromini. As they walk around inside the church, Alexandre duly imparts the background knowledge of this lovely place to Goffredo as a knowledgeable and experienced professional, and they soon look upon that beautiful cupola right above them. After they leave the scene, the camera slowly pans up and down to convey us the sense of mood and space around the cupola, and we come to admire its intricate and delicate design to evoke something divine and heavenly.
As they go around several places in Rome including Borromini’s masterpiece Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, we observe more of the apparent contrast between Goffredo and Alexandre. While Goffredo learns many things from Alexandre, Goffredo’s hopeful, idealistic attitude inspires Alexandre along with those old buildings still exuding their beauty and grandeur even after so many years, and he slowly begins to open his eyes to what he has overlooked as blindingly pushing his utilitarian philosophy. Spending more time with Laviana in Stresa, Aliénor also starts to be influenced by Laviana’s radiating pluckiness, and she feels more warmed and brightened than before as getting to know more about her young friend.
While this is essentially a typical tale about the journey of self-discovery, the director/writer Eugène Green, an American filmmaker who has lived in France for almost 40 years as a naturalized citizen, made odd, interesting choices in his movie. While his cinematographer Raphaël O’Byrne shot many scenes with static but precise compositions to be noticed, Green has his actors deliver their lines rather monotonously in their mannered performance, and this unorthodox approach sometimes generates unexpected moments of humor, which usually keep the film from being a dull, ponderous exercise on ideas and sceneries. There is a droll moment when Alexandre and Goffredo are invited to have a dinner with a group of superficial guests entangled in very complicated relationships among them, and then we are tickled by a funny scene involved with the stubborn concierge of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and one exasperated foreign tourist. Green briefly appears as a strange refugee Aliénor meets during one night, and this is still as amusing as I remember from the screening at the Jeonju International Film Festival in May 2015.
Because my condition was not particularly good when I watched “La Sapienza” for the first time at the 2015 JIFF, I was not quite sure about whether I understood it, though I did have a good time with it in spite of my sleepy condition. When I revisited it recently for this review, I was reconfirmed of my initial impression, and I found myself still enjoying its best scenes including the theatrically imagined sequence which brings a moment of artistic epiphany onto Alexandre.
Because of its slow, meditative tempo, “La Sapienza” probably requires some patience from you but it is a very rewarding experience coupled with interesting ideas and fabulous sights. Sometimes you can learn new things from old things, and you will agree to that when the movie finally arrives at its destination along with its characters. They did learn something new in each own way in the end, and now they can move on – with light and love to illuminate whatever is ahead of them.