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Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2014 review: La Sapienza

Layered with reels of swirling shots of Rome’s most beautiful buildings – all crucially shot from the ground upwards, staring at the heavens – La Sapienza is visually stunning.
A scene from Eugène Green’s La Sapienza. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Film Festival
A scene from Eugène Green’s La Sapienza. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Film Festival

Directed by: Eugène Green

Starring: Fabrizio Rongione, Christelle Prot

Four stars

Architecture is an easy metaphor for the divine – a world where art and craft, and beauty and design, are considered equals.

Taking it’s name from the Latin-derived word, the title refers to the idea of a “great knowledge” the artists of the Renaissance sought through the synthesis of the mediums. Layered with reels of swirling shots of Rome’s most beautiful buildings – all crucially shot from the ground upwards, staring at the heavens – La Sapienza is visually stunning.

But the French-American director Eugène Green’s picture deals in far more more than pretty pictures, pontificating wildly on themes of ageing, guilt, sacrifice, language, freedom and responsibility, using a central plot device that unravels far less predictably than it sounds.

Frequent Dardenne brothers collaborator Fabrizio Rongione, an Italian, and French actress Christelle Prot play Alexandre and Aliénor Schmidt, a burdened Parisian couple who embark on a spurious trip to Italy; ostensibly so he, an architect, can study his hero Francesco Borromini, but really for them both “to think”.

A chance encounter (or fate? the film wonders) sees the grow close to a local teenage brother and sister living in Ticino, Borromini’s birthplace. The 18-year-old boy, about to embark on an architecture degree, joins Alexandre on a trip to absorb the masters in Rome, where his time-honed scholarly opinions clash with the passioned ideals of youth.

“It’s beautiful,” declares the boy, starring at yet another Baroque masterpiece. “And well-learned,” answers his elder. It’s art versus craft again, but this time divided by age, and inevitably the two generations have much to learn from one another.

Meanwhile Aliénor stays in Ticino, where she builds up a relationship with the boy’s psychosomatically bed-ridden sister. A similar transaction occurs. She, a left-leaning sociologist, explains happiness professionally by the presence of wealth. The girl is reading Madame Bovary, the tale of a woman who is well provided for, but unfulfilled by her circumstances. Both encounters appear to be preaching the virtues of space and freedom, in both architecture and life: The pragmatists learn to dream, and the dreamers learn the value of experience (“Spaces are nothing but emptiness” says Alexandre; “Emptiness which must be filled” replies young Goffredo).

A poignant and meditative script dense with meanings and ideas, but light with movement and action, nothing is stated explicitly to the audience.

Both leads shine with tremendously restrained performances. With virtually no psychic movement at all, the actors are left to impart prophetical literary dialogue as if a messenger, weighty sentences sitting on the screen for moments, more often than not delivered in close-up, painterly head shots.

Green has concocted many things – an ode to the beauty of creation, a celebration of the masters, and an existential think piece which preaches love and knowledge as divine gifts worth treasuring.

La Sapienza screens again on Tuesday October 28 at 4.30pm at Vox.

Updated: October 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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