Architecture Offers Clues to the Past in La Sapienza


In Eugène Green’s La Sapienza, a refugee identifying as a member of the long-disappeared Chaldean nation remarks that eventually his ethnic group and their language (Aramaic) will vanish. Regardless of whether the refugee is meant to be a vision, a ghost, or something else entirely, his point casts its shadow across this stirring film.

So much human history vanishes, so in the present we strive to understand the past through whatever totems we can find. The totemic focus of Green’s film is architecture. Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione) and Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman) are a French couple on holiday in Italy; he is a venerated architect reconnecting with the works of Francesco Borromini.

The couple meets teenage Italian siblings Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro); Goffredo, an architecture student, ends up accompanying Alexandre throughout Italy while Aliénor stays with Lavinia, bonding with the younger woman as Lavinia recuperates from an illness.

The men’s journey is the more engaging, with Alexandre and Goffredo visiting gorgeous churches whose pasts are preserved within their architecture, a point articulated in Alexandre’s speeches. The film may sound like a story of emotional bonding between different generations, and while that isn’t entirely incorrect, Green is after something more complex.

Since Green has his actors employ a detached, affected mode of performance — paging Brecht! — viewers are directed toward the intellectual content of the discussions as much as along the emotional current between the characters. The result is a picture that balances heart and mind with nuance.