Home Video Hovel: La Sapienza, by Scott Nye
A brief summation of La Sapienza’s virtues tends to make them sound like weaknesses – the dialogue is delivered flatly, its dramatic structure seeks to calm rather than spark friction, its most touching scenes revolve around discussions of architecture, but the rhythm of the editing elongates this talky picture’s silences rather than truncating them. It is, thoroughly and refreshingly, the work of an older filmmaker not looking to profess a false sense of youthfulness, but instead linger on the sweetness of the everyday.
Architect Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione) and his wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman) have found themselves disconnected after nearly twenty years of marriage, a fact that is so thoroughly underlined near the start of the picture (get ready for more than a few two shots of them speaking to, but not looking at, one another) that I nearly ran for the exits before the stock European discontentment overran the thing. Fortunately for them, and us, they happen upon two young siblings in the midst of a minor crisis. Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) has suffered one of what we come to learn are her semi-frequent fainting spells, leaving Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) to struggle to bring her home alone. Aliénor is only too happy to help; Alexandre is kind of annoyed by everything, so why should this be any different?
They all get to talking, and it turns out Goffredo is embarking on architectural studies himself, leaving Aliénor to suggest Alexandre take the young man along with him on his planned trip through the residences and labors of Francesco Borromini, a 17th century architect whom the older reveres. He is, naturally, displeased with the suggestion, but Goffredo is sort of amused by this annoyance and insists his way along; Aliénor, meanwhile, takes the time to bond with Lavinia, helping her develop her skills in French and serving as the caretaker Goffredo has had to be all these years.
If you guessed that the siblings benefit from the wisdom of the married couple and that the latter learns something from the vitality and lack of cynicism in the former, you may think you’ve got this movie figured out; from a certain point of view, you’re correct. The plot does not get a whole lot more complicated than that. However, writer/director Eugène Green allows a curious sense of unease to permeate the proceedings; tragedy seems to follow the Schmidts, and threaten the kids. Green’s primary aesthetic preoccupation, a shot-reverse-shot pattern in which those conversing speak directly into the camera, leaves us feeling the absence of the other part. They feel ghostly, somewhere between a confessional and purgatory.
Like the late films by Manoel de Oliveira, La Sapienza encases its concerns within a small group of people, the outside world only registering in the extent to and manner with which it affects our protagonists. Waiters and passers-by float by as naturally and unobtrusively as the foliage, evincing little personality. When an Australian tourist insists to an attendant at a historical site that he be allowed into a closed section, Green allows (encourages, even) us to laugh at his rudeness and entitlement. The attendant, meanwhile, becomes more and more human as he gradually allows this special access to Alexandre and Goffredo.
Cinematographer Raphaël O’Byrne takes Goffredo’s approach to architecture, finding the light in every moment, and letting its presence, no matter how minor, register strongest. It makes for a lovely viewing experience, reminiscent of the last few features Darius Khondji shot for Woody Allen, and helps underline the magic that Green seeks to find in casual interactions. Kino’s new Blu-ray edition represents O’Byrne’s work exceptionally well, nary a flaw to the image nor a compression artifact left standing. The disc comes with Les signes, a 2006 short film by Green, starring Prot Landman and Mathieu Amalric (presented in standard definition), as well as a twelve-minute interview with Green (presented in substandard definition) and an essay by critic and programmer Nick Pinkerton. I found all quite satisfying.
La Sapienza has stuck with me quite powerfully in the months since seeing it, gradually registering as one of the best films of the year thus far. Kino’s Blu-ray provides an ideal way to experience the film – outstanding technical virtues, and just enough context to keep you curious.