Eugène Green, whose blithely intoxicating “La Sapienza” played the New York Film Festival, knew at age 11 that he wanted to leave New York — Brooklyn, specifically. But he waited till he was 20. Over the last 30-odd years, he has been back only sporadically, with this film or that, having lost a bit of his English but none of his affinity for European culture and the sense of artistic history that makes “La Sapienza” so alien to standard moviegoer expectations, yet so blissfully enigmatic.
“I had the impression when I as young that the world around me wasn’t real and that reality was in books and literature,” Green said at a screening of “La Sapienza” – which is usually translated as “wisdom” or “knowledge”” but which Green said actually means “the knowledge that leads to wisdom.” He acknowledged with a smile that, yes, you have to keep explaining it. Which is apparently easier than explaining his childhood in Bensonhurst.
“Early on, I had the idea of going to Britain or Ireland and make my life through the English language,” he said, “because for me language is the basis of humanity and every language is a different vision of the world and depending on the language you speak, you don’t see things in the same way.” He tried Britain for a while. He tried Germany, which in 1968 was still a post-war country. “I realized how much the war was present, not so much in what was said, but in what wasn’t said, what could not be said.”
The mute eloquence of architecture is at the heart of “La Sapienza,” which is a French film from a French director – and dramatist, and educator and authority on French baroque theater – but takes place largely in Rome. There, a disillusioned architect named Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione) is trying to rescue his soul through the work of post-Renaissance architect Francesco Borromini, and rescue his marriage to Aliénor (the luminous Christelle Prot Landman). They meet a younger brother and sister, Goffredo (Ludovico Succio), an architecture student, and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro), who suffers panic attacks and fainting spells when her brother is too far away. Through the younger people the older couple find their sense of balance, which is something reflected in the breathtaking architecture of Borromini, and cinematography of Raphael O’Byrne.
What happens to the viewer, through Borromini’s work and the lingering close-ups Green uses, is that one begins to recognize the architecture of all things, from the mountains surrounding Lake Maggiore to the human face, particularly that of Prot Landman, who is a Lacanian analyst, as well as an actress.
“She had the lead in my fist two features, a cameo in my third, in was in two of my shorts,” Green said. “She works in theater, and a lot of directors tell me she’s marvelous. But when she auditions they tell her she’s not ‘modern enough’ so she doesn’t get roles.” Green shook his shaggy head in dismay, a gesture that transcended language.
Kino Lorber opens the film March 20th.