Though superficially reminiscent of the rigid theatricality of Manoel de Oliveira, the dead-air stillness of Fernando Eimbcke, or even some of the poker-faced comic tactics of Wes Anderson, French-American writer-director Eugène Green’s style is uniquely his own, neither strictly comedic nor merely formalist. Lighting is flat, colors are neutral, and ambient sound is kept to a minimum. Compositions air toward the ordered, if not outright symmetrical. Actors restrain their movements to only the most overt physical manifestations of intent—such as a speaker’s 45-degree bodily rotation toward the listener. Conversations, the focal point of Green’s films, are framed in one of two ways: as a pair of over-the-shoulder medium shots of each speaker or as a back-and-forth ping pong of frontal shots in which the speakers stare directly into the lens, the audience involuntarily assuming the point of view of the listener. That final technique is perhaps the defining signature of Green’s work.
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. 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. Depending on the exchanges preceding them, these otherwise inexpressive and awkwardly emphasized visual punctuation marks take on a variety of meanings. Conversations are fundamentally about working toward a mutual takeaway; only then can the characters and the film move on.
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. On a script level it traces a familiar, even trite, outline: the Schmidts, Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione) and Aliénor (Christelle Prot), are feeling uninspired both in their marriage and careers. An impromptu trip from their native Switzerland to Italy to fuel Alexandre’s inspiration to write finds them running into sibling acquaintances Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro), with whom they share unlikely transformative experiences over the course of their excursion. By the end, love and purpose are restored for all.
Green has characterized Alexandre as an architect with a specialty in the baroque works of Borromini, which, leaving aside the director’s admitted fondness for European architectural history, is a smart, resonant choice. Indulging a fairly esoteric cultural realm such as this assumes a foundation of viewer detachment and unfamiliarity that Green’s studied, methodical filmmaking works to dissolve, so that while Alexandre is reconnecting to his love for the craft, the audience is too. Languid once-overs of regal Swiss monuments at the beginning of the film train the viewer to exercise a similar degree of scrutiny over the subsequent human interactions. Throughout, visual decisions—as much discrete objects of consideration as Green’s vigilantly directed streams of dialogue—mirror ideas raised and conclusions reached in conversation. When Goffredo, an aspiring architect himself, characterizes the philosophical function of architecture as “spaces to be filled with light and people” (the first of many times this sentiment is expressed), Green cuts to a shot of a placid river surface, a neutral image suddenly filled with new meaning when the camera pans over to a pair of drinking glasses sitting on the café table in the foreground.
The problem facing Alexandre—who self-identifies as secular and whose cynicism climaxes with the jaded declaration, “architecture has nothing to do with passion”—is an absence of purpose and light. In an obliquely staged nightmare late in the film, Alexandre is tormented by an inability to register the shape of things and identify the sources of off-screen sounds. A series of carefully composed chiaroscuro images of shadows, disembodied hands and candles (not unlike a similar dream sequence in Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow), the scene breaks radically from the bright clarity of the rest of the film and indicates the existential void the fledgling Goffredo seeks to circumvent with his studies. Only through conversation can this open-minded perspective be transferred to Alexandre.
Green’s mannered direction doesn’t work for every situation it’s homogenously applied to (the broadness of one comedy bit featuring an Australian tourist is illuminated rather than concealed by the stiff staging), but at its most effective it inspires an enhanced sensitivity to the import of every gesture, visual or verbal. In such moments, La Sapienza offers an ideal case study for the notion that no story is fundamentally doomed, and that even a stock middle-age rediscovery narrative such as this can be seen anew. Great architecture, the film suggests, is about applying shape, form, and meaning to an experience, as well as something to look up to (literally, the light). In addition to functioning as a working allegory for the film’s own narrative repurposing act, this credo also operates as a metaphor for finding purpose in life.
In one early scene at an urban planning meeting, bureaucratic interlopers thwart Alexandre’s ambitious plan for new public housing in Bissone. Exercising some last-ditch heroism before taking a sabbatical from his job for personal research, Alexandre insists that architecture isn’t just about building great buildings, but about making meaningful uses of the space we have. Thus, implied in the last shot—a majestic tilt over Lake Lugano toward the sky—is the reminder that the world itself can be a cathedral too.