Had Lewis Carroll switched from jotting down his visions to carving them in stone, his works might have looked a lot like Antonio Gaudí’s. Both artists shared what Eric Rohmer once described (in a Cahiers du Cinéma review of a Frank Tashlin movie) as “a rebellion against the straight line,” a quality amply displayed in Antonio Gaudí, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s meditative document about the great Spanish architect. As Teshigahara’s camera travels through the streets of Barcelona, the majesty and sheer strangeness of Gaudí’s 19th-century combination of Art Nouveau arabesques and organic contours take over. The tour is centered on detailed views of the Casa Battlo and the Casa Mila la Pedrera, where ornate designs seem to alternately belong in a Kubrick film and in the Land of Oz, and on the Casa Vicens and Casa Guell, where medieval sumptuousness is skewed by twisty columns and undulating rooftops. Ditching talking heads in favor of Toru Takemitsu’s spellbinding score, Teshigahara cultivates an immersive tone, encouraging the viewer to float hypnotically from one architectural wonder to the next, from grisly murals to staircases that resemble a caterpillar’s segmented body. The contrasting blends in Gaudí’s work (the ancient and the modern, the natural and the man-made) are reflected in shots of frosted glass on antique formations, and also of rocky hills that look like rugged visages. Visually ravishing and rhythmic, Antonio Gaudí feels like a well-made but impersonal travelogue until one recalls the Japanese filmmaker’s own use of nature’s unruly shapes in his classic Woman in the Dunes. Teshigahara’s refusal to provide extensive biographical or historical context to Gaudí’s structures won’t be of much help to art students cramming for a test, yet he understands how, when dealing with the maker of the monumental, unfinished Sagrada Familia church, an artist’s life and times can be best summarized by letting the works speak for themselves.
Other than a few moments of softening, the windowboxed image is close to immaculate, a vast improvement over the detail-effacing fuzziness of the previous VHS transfer. Takemitsu’s score, an integral part of the picture, comes through serviceably in the mono soundtrack.
If the 72-minute film seems too slender for its two-disc package, Criterion has made sure there are plenty of extras to fill the gaps. Gaudí, Catalunya, 1959, a 16mm home movie made during Teshigahara’s first trip to Spain, further reveals the director’s personal interest in the artist and includes a glimpse of Salvador Dalí. Teshigahara’s early short, Sculptures by Sofu-Vita, documents the art of his father during a 1963 gallery, with a stark, otherworldly feel that unmistakably evokes Woman in the Dunes. The historical perspective deliberately left out by the film is picked up in a pair of illuminating featurettes: Architect Arata Isozaki discusses the fascination Gaudí’s art holds for Japanese aesthetes, while art critic Robert Hughes is more analytical of the architect’s background in the hour-long BBC special Visions of Space: "God’s Architect." A brisk but disappointingly conventional Gaudí short by Ken Russell is also included, along with the theatrical trailer.
Hiroshi Teshigahara lets Antonio Gaudí’s works speak for themselves, and what strange music they make.