Critics should do a better job in communicating just how open-ended, curious, and worldly the films of New York–born, seventeenth-century-loving, strict Francophone Eugène Green are. It’s become standard to start discussion of Green by pointing out that his tastes run to the Baroque. This instantly sets his films at a distance, not only for the perceived historical remove it creates but also because it positions him as somehow terribly specialized. That Green directs in a precisely constructed, and often highly unusual, way that reads to most viewers, for lack of a better term, as “art cinema,” only furthers the speculation that his work is precious and closed off. His lovely, unexpectedly moving La Sapienza may use a philosophical and aesthetic inquiry into the work of Baroque architect Francesco Borromini as a springboard, but what the film is really about are the natural elements of living, applicable to then or now: love, aging, grief, and spirituality, individually and all at once, and how those elements inhabit our lives.
“There’s a definite pedagogic function embedded in the lectures delivered by reflexively dour architect Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione), touring Italy with would-be protege Goffredo (Ludovico Succio), whose company Alexandre reluctantly tolerates at his wife’s request,” writes Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker. “The camera’s no less attentive to the particulars of the churches under consideration than the likes of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s wordless Antonio Gaudi, panning patiently up facades and following their lines as Alexandre narrativizes their function into a coherent story about how buildings visually direct our gaze while also telling some kind of allegorical story about man’s relationship to God. Pace OMD, the film’s quite literally about architecture and morality.”
“That Green’s cinema is powered by verbal exchange is nothing out of the ordinary; what’s peculiar is that his treatment of it works insistently against the grain of naturalism.” Carson Lund at Slant: “Technically speaking, he has no use for the L cut, the accepted norm for editors approximating the loose, fluid texture of actual communication. Instead, an actor recites their lines only when on screen, each block of speech part of a distinct image. This, in addition to the pauses generated after each thought has been processed, has the effect of emphasizing the reactive, cumulative nature of communication, especially when Green concludes a dialogue scene with a wordless reaction shot of a smile or a blank expression…. All of this might frame Green’s work as hopelessly dry, but what makes his new drama, La Sapienza, so immersive on a beat-by-beat basis is precisely this heightened scrutiny of human interaction. The film is, after all, about how we make sense and meaning of the raw material around us, be it people, landscapes, or buildings.”
“Green has melded the world of stone with that of the spirit, which in fact the former was intended to represent in the first place,” writes Howard Feinstein for Filmmaker. “Everyone has their demons. Proximity to the youngsters helps Alexandre and Alienor deal with ghosts from their marital past…. It is all brilliantly circuitous.”
“Somehow, for all its detachment, Green gathers all these elements for a final reconciliation that manages to break through the film’s carefully erected emotional wall with a vivid sense of a renewal of infinite possibilities,” writes Kenji Fujishima at In Review Online.
“La Sapienza is a testament to the male ego—a vanity piece—that idealizes the past and eschews the present to justify a projected ideology that purports the value of chasing dreams and attempting to recreate the past as a way of coping with the fear of death and ideas of legacy,” argues Robert Bell at Ioncinema. Green’s “sense of nostalgia, being a symptom of one’s inability to cope with the world as presented, is his drug. It aids him in creating the anachronistic, overwhelmingly distancing style demonstrated in La Sapienza while similarly limiting him to overly constructed and altogether insincere affectations associated with someone repressing cultural signifiers and naturalistic inclinations to perform a romantic ideal.”
“The director’s career-long celebration of high culture has begun to calcify into a kind of sneer,” finds Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club. “The title refers to the ostensibly forgotten word ‘sapience,’ which, in English at least, is not quite forgotten but seldom used. ‘Wisdom’ is easier.”
As Nick Vivarelli reported earlier this month in Variety, Kino Lorber has taken US and Canadian rights to La Sapienza.
Update, 9/28: “In some ways there’s a resemblance to the studied mannerisms (and spiritual concerns) of Robert Bresson, yet with a kind of theatrical ebullience that also recalls Jacques Rivette and late Jean Renoir,” writes Geoffrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com. La Sapienza “is an impassioned and strikingly original argument for the coherence and value of life and the redemptive powers of art. It’s not just Baroque architecture and music that possess such powers, of course. Implicitly, Green is vaunting cinema’s own inspiring and transformative capacities when practiced at its highest levels. In so doing, he joins others who appear eager to revive the potency of Europe’s artistic cinema. Like Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, La Sapienza evokes masterpieces of decades past while confidently charting new territory of its own. A work of exaltation and profound vision, it deserves to move Green to the front ranks of European auteurs.”
Update, 10/1: John Anderson talks with Green for Thompson on Hollywood.
Update, 10/12: “It’s obvious that Bresson had an influence on me,” Green tells Nick Pinkerton in an interview for Sight & Sound.