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New York Film Festival Critic’s Choice: ‘La Sapienza’

New York Film Festival Critic's Choice: 'La Sapienza'

Although this year’s New York Film Festival is loaded with high-profile
movies like “Gone Girl,” Eugene Green’s sumptuously photographed,  stylized, philosophical “La Sapienza
is exactly the kind of small, exquisite work the festival can help draw
attention to.

Fabrizio Rongione carries much of the film’s thoughtful
eloquence as Alexandre Schmidt, an architect 
tired of the urban blight and ugliness he has too often been a part of. We
literally see what he means.

Green and cinematographer Raphael O’Byrne’s camera roams
over the gilded vaults and centuries-old sculptures of a church in the opening
credits before jolting us to bleakness of 
Alexandre’s industrial present. (Rongione may look familiar because he’s
a fixture in the Dardennes Brothers’ films. He brings a different but equally
effective kind of soulfulness to his role as the working class husband of Marion
Cotillard’s character in their “Two Days, One Night,” also in this year’s
festival.)

In an attempt to recapture his aesthetic idealism, he sets
out to revisit the work of the 17th century architect — and Bernini rival – Borromini.
 His wife Alienor goes along, an attempt
to bridge the distance between them.

Along the way they meet Goffredo, a young architecture student
whom Alexandre reluctantly takes along on his Borromini tour to Ticino and
Rome, while Alienor stays behind to help Goffredo’s psychosomatically ill
sister, Lavinia.

Green’s interest in the Baroque goes back to his days as a
theater director, and his approach is to make the conversations in “La
Sapienza” as stylized as the visual look. Couples stare directly at each
other as they talk. Alexandre and Goffredo talk about aesthetics and artistic
ideals. Alexandre and Alienor — eventually — about the coolness between them.
The camera often captures the speaker head-on, looking at us. Surprisingly, Green’s
elegance makes those scenes intimate rather than artificial or arch.

The film is in French and Italian. That’s just as well when
it comes to the French title used here, which sounds more enticing than the English
“sapience,” which Alexandre complains that is a perfectly good forgotten
word for wisdom.  

Green, an American who long ago transplanted himself to
France, is scarcely known in this country. His work, most recently “‘The
Portuguese Nun” (2009), is much more likely to turn up in festivals than in
commercial runs. (Kino Lorber will release “La Sapienza” here.)  You can spot him in a small scene as a shabby,
gray-haired exile from Iraq sitting on a park bench, who talks to Alienor. The episode
is not quite surreal but it’s far from kitchen sink realism. “La Sapienza”
exists in its own lovely artistic hothouse.  

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