Alexandre Schmid (Fabrizio Rongione, recently seen as Marion Cotillard’s supportive husband in “Two Days, One Night”), a brilliant Swiss architect, deeply concerned that his work has become moribund, sets off on an intellectual journey to Italy. His guide is the Baroque genius, Francesco Borromini: Schmid’s plan is to re-visit some of the great architect’s churches, to write about them, and “to think.”
His French wife Aliénor, (Christelle Prot Landmann, who looks a bit like Agnès Jaoui), works at an intersection of psychology and sociology, studying groups and what they need for well-being. Hoping to close the distance that has opened in their marriage, she offers to accompany Alexandre on his study trip, which will become unexpectedly emotional and spiritual.
A native New Yorker, (but French by choice), auteur Eugène Green, in his miraculous new film, “La Sapienza” (a standout at the 2014 New York Film Festival), studies Baroque architecture, Italian cityscapes and landscapes, and faces to reveal the presence of light, divine (although that word and “god” are never spoken in his film), and in human lives.
After viewing the house in Bissone (Switzerland) where Borromini was born in 1599, Alexandre and Aliénor travel to the nearby Italian city Stresa, perched above spectacular Lake Maggiore. While walking in a lush park, they come to the aid of teenage siblings, Lavinia (Arianna Nastro), who has suddenly become ill (having suffered from a nervous disorder since childhood), and her older brother, Goffredo (Ludovico Succio), who is soon to begin his architectural studies in Venice.
The four form an unlikely friendship. Aliénor chooses to stay in Stresa to get to know and help Lavinia and persuades Alexandre to take the intellectually precocious Goffredo with him to Turin and Rome, allowing the young man to discover Borromini’s first commission, San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane, and his glorious masterpiece, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. Green’s camera, continually, eagerly gazing upward, turns 360º when reaching the cupola.
Green’s characters, who speak unnaturally (but rivetingly) in mannered cadences and full, articulate, beautiful sentences, also ask particularly straight-forward questions (if often it’s simply “perché?”). He shoots conversations in a shot/countershot pattern, with the actors looking deeply into the camera, the surrogate for each other’s eyes. Initially unnerving to watch, but then all-involving–it’s as if the speaker is addressing the film’s viewer.
The redemptive power of art, the presence of light (“La Sapineza” is beautifully photographed by Green’s longtime cinematographer Raphäel O’Byrne) and true human interaction restore Alexandre and Aliénor emotionally. Lavinia, in an ideal summer dress, seemingly made of light, says she’s cured, and that the shadow she’s always seen falling on Goffredo has disappeared.
Reunited, in the park where they met the siblings, Alexandre tells Aliénor that the “source of beauty is love…the source of knowledge is light.” And light is what’s used to make movies, it’s the rawest of raw materials.