La Sapienza, or Cinema as Art History + Clouds of Sils Maria

LaSapienza1Titled partially after Italian Baroque architect Francesco Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, which was itself named for the Sapienza University of Rome, La Sapienza (2014, screening Thursday, April 30 only at 7:30 p.m.) also refers to a word of Latin origin that translates to “sapience” in English, or the possession of great wisdom or sagacity. A masterpiece of Baroque architecture that harmoniously brings together sharp edge and curve in its extraordinary dome and a mostly forgotten word that hints at the concept of deeper revelation, these are the twin intellectual underpinnings of and the topics of conversational exploration for Eugène Green’s (the under-appreciated auteur of Le pont des Arts) elegant new foray into Europe’s rich cultural past.

La Sapienza begins with a ceremony to fête architect Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione), an avowed secularist who has refused to build churches during his celebrated career. At the height of professional success, Alexandre decides to set off for Italy to complete his manuscript on the Italian master Borromini, which he started many years earlier. (Alexandre will later insist that he is more Bernini than Borromini, the object of his admiration; this indeed is cinema as art history.) Travelling to the mountain town of Stresa with his beautiful wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman), the Schmidts are soon confronted by their diminishing marital passion. Green’s film, in this sense–not to mention through the filmmaker’s strategy of framing conversing characters side-by-side,with his actors failing to meet one another’s gaze–is positioned as an heir to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, whose epochal and alienated L’Avventura (1960) screened last month at OKCMOA.

Enter Goffredo (Ludovico Succio), an aspiring architect, and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro), his extremely frail younger sister. This very close set of teenage siblings will manage to awaken what is absent in Alexandre and Aliénor’s lives respectively: namely, a passion for his vocation in the case of the former, and the motherly instincts that were suppressed with the death of her child in that of the latter. Indeed, upon meeting the teenagers during a lakeside stroll, the Schmidts part company to spend time with their new acquaintances–though not without Alexandre’s protests. Goffredo’s devotion to the presence of light will prove especially provocative to the disillusioned Alexandre, while Lavinia’s insistence that she and Aliénor speak French, despite the language’s “complicated set of rules,” presents a point of entry into the film’s alternative thematic emphasis. Baroque architecture, again, filmed with so much grace in this beautiful art history lesson, and a language that’s “becoming… rare”–the New York-born, French-naturalized writer-director Green concerns himself with the very substance of his adopted European civilization.

Green remains ever the modernist likewise, adopting a style of shooting where his actors address the camera directly, declaiming as if speaking to someone standing directly behind the (invisible) camera. The effect of Green’s startling strategy is to lend an exceptional weight to the actor’s gaze. Calling to mind, once again, the actors’ refusal to meet one another’s gazes when speaking elsewhere in La Sapienza, the net of this motif, and those other added set-ups when his performers stand face to face, is to make the act of making eye contact something out of the ordinary and unequally powerful. I am reminded, at this point, of a lecture I once heard that identified an autistic quality in the films of French master Robert Bresson (an important source for Green in the latter filmmaker’s tactile compositions of hands and feet in particular). What seemed something of a stretch for the earlier maestro of the spiritual cinema, feels much more appropriate to Green’s art, where eye contact accrues a weight absent in nearly every other work of the art form. Green really does achieves something singular in the consistently compelling and even touching La Sapienza.

clouds-of-sils-mariaAlso screening, both this weekend and next, is leading light of the contemporary French cinema, Olivier Assayas’s (Irma Vep, Summer Hours) art-house hit Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). Starring global art cinema icon Juliette Binoche (an Academy Award®-winner for The English Patient), Twilight’s Kristen Stewart (in a role that earned her the César Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first time an American has ever earned France’s top acting prize) and up and comer Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-AssHugo), Assayas expertly crafts a meta-fictional narrative where the psycho-sexual power dynamics of the play-within-the-play mirror and respond to those of Binoche’s and Stewart’s characters, an internationally famous stage and screen star and her devoted personal assistant respectively. For more on this substantial new, frequently English-language work–don’t tell Eugène Green–see Michael Sragow’s review for Film Comment. Suffice it to say that is an especially strong offering from one of France’s most important living directors.