La Sapienza (2014)

La Sapienza follows in the footsteps of Summer Hours, Certified Copy, and Museum Hours as an examination of art and life. But where those films dealt with more traditional forms of art, La Sapienza looks at architecture as art. Grand cathedrals, monolithic plazas, and even humble housing spark contemplation, conversation, and awe.

The opening scene is a montage of Italian architecture while Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio rongione) delivers a lecture about his work. As he recounts his feats as an architect, he relays that he refuses to build temples and chapels because he does not believe in God, but in man and the work man achieves.

Yet as he says this, the images tell a different story. It begins with grand marvels that withstood the test of time, beautiful works of art out for all to see. But when Alexandre talks of man’s work, it cuts to the image of a smokestack, gaudy, functional, and destructive. Perhaps not all of man’s work is as wondrous and grand as Alexandre believes. And he’s conscious of this as later in the film he’s asked to expand a housing development at the cost of destroying nature.

As Alexandre travels with Alenor (Christelle Prot), his wife, around Italy, they meet two siblings: Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro). Goffredo has aspirations of being an architect and is delighted to meet one in the flesh. While the two take in the monuments of man around them, Alenor and Lavinia bond. Lavinia is under an affliction and not very mobile, leaving the two of them to talk in a modest bedroom.

Both youths have a faith that the adults have lost. Goffredo aspires to create a temple for all religions, a place of unity and peace where all may worship under one roof. Of course, Alexandre is not thrilled at the idea. And Lavinia is much more at peace with her horrible affliction than Alienor is about her waning relationship. Both youth have a maturity beyond their age.

Although this sounds like a movie of passion, director Eugene Green directs the film with a distancing effect. In the vein of Robert Bresson, the acting is muted and mechanical. It’s the filmmaking that conveys the passion, not grandstand performances. It has its moments of emotional intensity, but they are dones by the means of cinema, not theatrical performances.

This allows the images to speak all the louder. Green uses one point perspective to capture these magnificent architectural feats. And the clean, modern aesthetic gives it a heightened sense of realism. At times, the film is an immaculately crafted travelogue. It allows the images to convey a sense of awe and wonder that would be lost in a lesser film. The simplicity enables clarity.

This all culminates in the differing opinions of Alexandre and Goffredo. Man vs. God, the secular vs. the religious. Is a cathedral a monument to the feats of mankind, or a celebration of God? Does man create his own wonder, or does wonder come down from the heavens? The debate seems foolish in the shadows of an architectural masterpiece. What the function and message is becomes overwhelmed by the awe of it all. The conversations stop and one lets in the feeling, the sense of tightness that sweeps one away into a grand design that seems almost incomprehensible.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing