“Science without conscience is the death of the soul.” The quote is by Francois Rabelais and it is one of the themes of Eugène Green’s film La Sapienza which he directed and wrote and which is in its US Premiere at the New York Film Festival. The title on a literal level refers to Francesco Borromini’s architectural masterpiece, his Baroque Saint Yves at La Sapienza (church) in Rome. On deeper levels, Green uses Borromini’s mystical intentions with his magnificent creation to spur on the film’s additional themes and as a catalyst to initiate the spiritual, metaphysical, and psychological reformation of the four main characters in his film.
Green makes no apologies for this thought provoking and meticulous film about a husband and wife whose need for “sapience” is very great, but who have long since stopped seeking the wisdom of the light through artistry, love, and humanity in their fields of endeavor. The couple live with one another but they have abandoned the search for meaning in their lives and because of this, they have also abandoned the desire to make a meaningful life together in love and companionship. In their lack of passion and stilted alienation from each other, they are reminiscent of the cold, lackluster, sterile factories and modern office buildings that architect husband Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione), designed and for which he won a lifetime achievement award. Wife Aliénor Schmidt (Christelle Prot Landman), psychologist/sociologist is as emotionally disengaged from Alexandre as she is from her work examining how and why immigrant groups feel alienated and dis-possessed from a culture that despises them and shoves them off to live in habitats that are vapid and without the spark of beauty or artistry. Both are going through the “motions” of living but their souls are dying.
Green immediately sets his parameters and lays out symbols that guide us throughout the film and infuse us with the understanding of two of his main themes: 1)we must seek wisdom and insight in all aspects of our relationships and existence; 2)wisdom and beauty should especially be integrated in the places where people live, the spaces that they inhabit to encourage the fullness of life. Thus, Green focuses his opening shots of the magnificent architectural appointments on churches and structures designed by classical masters (i.e. Borromini), then contrasts their beauty with the buildings Alexandre designed, modern, redundant skyscrapers of glass and steel, factories and structures that are sterile and truly unfit for human habitation though they are touted as “functional for work.” Indeed, those who award Alexandre describe his modern buildings as “the cathedrals of the modern age,” since it is the place where most of the employed spend most of their time; in passing Green hits us between the eyes with the notion that commercialism and money have become what we worship.
Green works the symbolism throughout the cinematography unifying these themes even in the composition of the interiors which are minimalist, dark, stark until the “light” comes. When they go out to eat to discuss a crucial decision in their lives, Alexandre and Aliénor sit in a contrapuntal arrangement, not close or intimately next to one another but opposite one another. Later in the film, each time Alexandre is with Goffredo, a student he is mentoring, they sit in the same fashion: alienated, apart, without touching, without warmth. Until Alexandre and Aliénor are recalled into a new light, they remain apart physically, emotionally, spiritually; it is a reflection of their dying souls, their attention to the muddiness of science without sapience (insight, discernment, wisdom), and spirit.
Alexandre’s turning point begins when he decides to pursue a dream from the past, studying and writing about Francesco Borromini’s architecture. Aliénor wants to accompany him, so they drive to Ticino (Borromini’s birthplace), and then to Stresa on Lake Maggiore. It is there that synchronicity and mystical serendipity bring them together with a young brother and sister, Goffredo (Ludovico Succio), and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro). Goffredo wants to be an architect; Lavinia is still in high school, but she gets dizzy spells and is ill for weeks at a time. The couple separates for a few weeks. Goffredo goes on a journey to Rome to learn about Borromini’s architecture accompanying Alexandre as he gains information for his writing project. On the journey Alexandre tutors Goffredo about Borromini’s architecture in contrast to Bernini’s. Aliénor stays in Stresa and visits with Lavinia during her illness, to give her friendship and help her understand her fears and the issues that might be causing her dizzy spells.
With the development of these new friendship couplings the “sapience” enters in and the doors of the soul are opened for the four individuals to heal. Goffredo asks Alexandre inspiring questions and makes suggestions about architecture that are revelatory. Lavinia discusses dreams and ideas which help Aliénor (you will have to see the film to find out what has been eating away Aliénor’s soul and was the catalyst for the couple’s alienation). During the separation from one another, for the brother and sister, husband and wife, there has been growing discernment. Now progress and movement forward is possible in each of their lives. All of this occurs amidst the scenic beauty and landscapes of Stresa and Lake Maggiore and the fabulous architecture of Borromini, which Alexandre comes to fully understand and capture for himself as he explains the essence of the masters’ greatness to Goffredo (and us). By the end of the film the brother and sister and husband and wife reunite. What they have discovered about each other and themselves would not have been possible any other way; and considering how “this way” occurred for all of them, it is impossible to understand except with spiritual insight and wisdom or “sapience.”
Green’s screenplay, his direction, and the cinematography are executed with precision and artfulness. It is up to the audience to be completely conscious of every shot he has framed, especially the landscapes and set compositions, which reveal how the placement of objects’ spatial relations reflect the human relationships and identities of these characters. More so than in most films, the parts reflect the whole and vice-versa. Even the elements Green focuses on have meaning as in the churches Green captures, each sculpted figure, each geometric design, each star or roseate and their number; these had meaning to the artists and the culture of the historic past. By focusing his camera intimately on such elements, Green hints that our cultural artifacts hold less and less meaning, the spaces are less and less fluid with light, a point that is made during a discussion between Goffredo and Alexandre. Green highlights the irony that though they appear to reflect the science, order and knowledge of the 21st century, the “cathedrals of the modern age” are without spirit, without wisdom; they are destructive for the impact they have on those who have to look at and dwell in such places.
One must have patience and focus to see and receive the complete effect of Green’s uplifting and symbolic film. Similarly, one must study Bernini/Borromini to appreciate the symbolism and significance of the various stars, designs, statues, signs and geometric structures as they build and and flow up to the sky to receive what Borromini intentioned, which was “sapience.” There is too much to miss with a cursory viewing of Borromini. Likewise, an unfocused viewing of Green’s film will be unsatisfying. For in each instance, there is the inherent opportunity to be uplifted into awareness. Green’s La Sapienza suggests that through awareness we may salvage ourselves and be able to integrate our lives and relationships with meaning and spiritual wisdom as do Green’s characters. This in turn may help us receive a deeper and more fulfilling way of being. And if we make ourselves accessible to “wisdom” and “insight,” we will be more readily able to heal our souls which have been devastated by cultural manifestations of science without conscience in our every day lives. This is Green’s finest of themes weaving through his brilliant, thoughtful film.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00DMFO2ZY]