A disillusioned French architect whose recent projects include a Brazilian hospital designed without windows (so that patients would be better prepared for the darkness of their coffins), Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione) is a compassionate man—he’s just forgotten what the light feels like. Eugène Green’s La Sapienza begins with Alexandre glumly receiving a lifetime achievement award, but given how many of his projects have already been torn down and built over, the trophy is the only tangible proof of his work. And it’s not like he’s an innocent victim in all of this: Most of Alexandre’s money has been made by designing factories and housing complexes that were themselves constructed atop the rubble of the past.
Overcome with a crisis of conscience, and given two months to reconsider a project that would force him to destroy a historic town, Alexandre and his behavioral-specialist wife, Alienor (Christelle Prot Landman), take a trip to the lakeside Italian idyll of Stresa in order to sort things out. Once there, the couple soon goes their separate ways, looking for answers to their professional, existential and/or marital questions with the help of a pair of local teens and the nearby works of Roman Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. (Oh, to have a “problem” that requires a two-month vacation in paradise.)
Combining the knowingly arch style of Abbas Kiarostami (whose Certified Copy towers over and belittles this film) with the didactically educational passion of your favorite art professor, La Sapienza alternately feels like a self-reflexive love story or a haunted history lesson—its best scenes play like both. Full of bright ideas but so unsure of how to humanize them (the film’s characters often feel like they’re simply supporting the structures they’re in, as wispy and translucent as the ghosts to which they’re constantly alluding), La Sapienza manages to effectively condemn modern life for its lack of memory. Green’s direction is so still and meditative that his frames begin to assume the rigidity of the buildings they feature, the characters staring into the camera like every shot is meant to aggressively challenge Alexandre’s cynical claim that “spaces are nothing but emptiness.” He knows that’s not true, and by the time La Sapienza arrives at its quietly hopeful ending, so will you.
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