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'La Sapienza': Baroque Italy's mystical refuge from soulless world

The church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome, one of baroque architect Francesco Borromini's masterpieces.
The church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome, one of baroque architect Francesco Borromini's masterpieces. Lawrence OP, Flickr

Brooklyn-born French director Eugène Green's latest baroque reverie on the cathartic power of art is both grating and richly gratifying.

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Four centuries ago, Catholic Rome harnessed the emotional force of baroque art, then in its infancy, to fight back against the double threat of Protestantism and nascent scientific thought. The art's mystical appeal still works wonders with Eugène Green, the director of “La Sapienza”, which opened in French and US cinemas this week.

Green, 67, a naturalized French citizen who refers to his native US as “Barbaria”, is enamored with French language and enthralled by the beauty of Italian baroque. He is not interested in theology, let alone the dogmatism of Counter-Reformation Rome. Instead, his fifth feature film is intimately tied to the figure of 17th century Swiss-born architect Francesco Borromini, the tormented exponent of an irreverent, esoteric form of baroque art. Its title, which translates into the archaic “sapience” or the more modern “wisdom”, is derived from the Church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, one of Borromini's Roman masterpieces.

The film opens on the shores of Lake Maggiore, Borromini's birthplace, straddling the border between Italy and Switzerland, and blends footage of the exquisite lake with panoramic shots of Rome in all its glory. We soon move to the grey, heavily built-up outskirts of Paris, to meet the film's protagonists, troubled architect Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione), himself from Switzerland, and his equally distressed wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman), a sociologist struggling to help alienated communities confined to inhospitable urban ghettos.

An award-winning architect, Alexandre is an increasingly disenchanted “materialist” with little patience for religious beliefs. His self-flagellation verges on the absurd when he admits a modernist hospital he once built without windows had the adverse effect of “making patients experience what it feels like to be in a coffin”. The couple's stilted, uncommunicative marriage reflects both characters' general state of disillusionment. When Alexandre sets off for Italy to revive his long-dormant research on Borromini, Aliénor decides to tag along.

A chance encounter with two young siblings on Lake Maggiore provides the couple with a new purpose. Alexandre agrees, at first grudgingly, to take 18-year-old Goffredo (Ludovico Succio), himself an aspiring architect, along with him to Rome, while Aliénor opts to stay in the lakeside town of Stresa to nurse Goffredo's sickly younger sister Lavinia (Arianna Nastro). The four characters eventually guide each other to a form of resurrection, in a passionate – though scarcely plausible – exploration of the cathartic power of art and language.

Rational vs mystical

The term “baroque” was originally used in a derogatory sense to contrast the noisy, excessive art of the 16th and 17th centuries with the sober harmony of the Renaissance. Green has no such qualms, embracing the style wholeheartedly and in all its forms. His background in baroque theatre, a genre he sought to revive by creating his own company, the Théâtre de la Sapience, is evident in his latest film, which sees actors deliver their flat, excessively articulate speech directly to the camera rather than relate to one another.

A stylistic tour de force, “La Sapienza” is marked by unnatural postures, rigid frames, antiquated language and a fastidious use of liaisons that some viewers will find insufferable. There will be fewer objections to the beautiful shots of Borromini's masterpieces, following the bold, tortuous patchwork of curves and sharp angles that define his art – all accompanied by the ethereal vocals of Claudio Monteverdi's “Magnificat”.

The lantern of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome.
The lantern of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome.

The film indulges in the oft-quoted subject of the rivalry between Baroque Rome's two great architects – the hugely successful “courtier” Gian Lorenzo Bernini, also an accomplished sculptor, and the more troubled, rebellious Borromini, whose turbulent life ended with his suicide in 1667. In the tussle between rational (Bernini) and mystical (Borromini) baroque, there is little doubt where Green's heart lies. Alexandre's instinct is to follow in Borromini's steps, but science and the imperatives of a soulless modern world have dragged him the other way. “I am Bernini”, he tells his young disciple, his melancholy indicating he wished he were the other.

Green is not alone in bemoaning the lack of spirituality in Europe's aging societies, burdened by materialism and arid rationalism. Five centuries after the father of French literature, he repeats Rabelais' warning that “science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul”. As Alexandre puts it, “most of what I know is useless”. Only by combining his knowledge with Goffredo's youthful, uncorrupted intuition can he find the route to sapienza, “that which lies beyond beauty”. As in baroque art, there is no visible god in Green's film. Instead, there is a “presence”, embodied by the light filtering through windows hidden in the lantern atop Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza.

Caressing the contours of Borromini's church, Green's camera follows the tortuous but inexorably upward path charted by the architect, all the way to the lantern. Our mission is to “fill empty spaces with people and light”, the young Goffredo tells his partner in travel, by now his pupil as much as his master. But there are no people in Green's Rome, no more than in the haunting city views of Paolo Sorrentino's oscar-winning “La Grande Bellezza”. It is a nostalgic, unearthly vision that leaves the viewer doubtful such a world could be anything but imaginary.

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