J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

NYFF ’14: La Sapienza

You do not often see ghost stories that double as tutorials on Baroque Italian architecture, but Eugène Green is no ordinary filmmaker. Often he reminds us spirits need a space to abide, so what could be more appropriate than the chapels designed by Baroque master builder Francesco Borromini? A contemporary architect will explain the history to us as he learns his own lessons in Green’s La Sapienza, which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 52nd New York Film Festival.

The story is deceptively simple. In hopes of repairing their ruptured marriage, Aliénor Schmidt accompanies her husband Alexandre on a trip through Italy and the Italian speaking regions of Switzerland, as he pretends to research the book on Borromini he always meant to write. However, their plans are upending at Lake Maggiore, where they encounter the fainting Lavinia and her protective brother Goffredo, a prospective architect student. Taking a shine to chronically ill Lavinia, Aliénor stays on to offer her support and friendship during her latest recuperation, sending Goffredo in her place with Alexandre. Initially, Schmidt is not particularly enthusiastic about the arrangement, but he too is soon won over by Goffredo’s earnestness.

If you are expecting teary sentimentality, guess again. As a leading Baroque dramatic revivalist, Green has a distinctive aesthetic that is guaranteed to be divisive at NYFF. There will be no conventional theatrics to dilute the film’s central ideas. At times, Sapienza has the feel of Baroque drama informed by post-modernism when characters essentially recite their dialogue standing side-by-side.

Yet, Green would argue his dramatic austerity is actually a much closer approximation of nature. Indeed, as the lead actors in the plays of our lives, our delivery is often rather flat and uninspired, even though it might take on greater significance later. After all, when couples argue, how often are they really engaging in dialogue or merely taking turns speaking?

Ironically, despite Green’s stylistic severity, he offers significant distractions in the absolutely gorgeous visuals (gloriously lensed by cinematographer Raphaël O’Byrne) and the accompanying baroque soundtrack. This film is such an exquisite feast for the eyes and ears, anyone ought to be able to bask in its surface beauty. Still, there is considerably more going on beneath the surface.

There are ghosts of a sort in the film, but tellingly, the terms spirit and light are used interchangeably. Arguably, all four major characters are haunted to some extent. Mr. Schmidt is saddled with guilt and shame for emotionally undermining his late partner (somewhat mirroring Borromini’s relationship with his rival, Bernini), while Ms. Schmidt still mourns their ill-fated baby. In contrast, their youthful friends are tormented by ghosts that do not exist yet: the fear that the sister will eventually succumb to her persistent ailments in his absence and the concern that the brother will sacrifice his promise out of sibling loyalty.

Green’s principles faithfully execute his vision, giving utterly egoless performances. Nevertheless, as Lavinia, Arianna Nastro’s eerily incandescent presence shines through unabated. Green himself also throws a heavy sinking curve ball as an Aramaic-speaking Chaldean holy fool in what is just slightly too substantial to be deemed a cameo.

La Sapienza is a rapturously lush film, with genuine spiritual heft, but it never spoon-feeds viewers. As a filmmaker, Green demands the audience meet him more than halfway, which asks quite a bit. However, there is definitely a there there to engage with. Like an especially potent after dinner liqueur, you would not want a steady diet of Green’s films, but it is nice to have one every four years or so. Highly recommended for architecture nerds and fans of challengingly literate cinema, La Sapienza screens this Saturday (9/27) at Alice Tully Hall and Sunday (9/28) at the Beale as part of this year’s NYFF.

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