architecture in film, Arianna Nastro, Charisse Gendron, Christelle Prot, Eugène Green, European cinema, Fabrizio Rongione, Francesco Borromini, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Italian Baroque architecture, Italian cinema, La Sapienza, Ludovico Succio, world cinema
While not simple opposites, the two masters of Italian baroque architecture serve as dialectical energies of mind and body spiraling to a grand height in director Eugène Green’s 2014 film La Sapienza.
Fierce rivals, Francesco Borromini (1599 –1667) and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) were born within a year of each other. Two of their most famous Roman churches, Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Bernini’s Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, anchor the same street, the Via del Quirinale. While Borromini wrought the more inventive buildings, Bernini excelled at both architecture and sculpture. For this reason, and for his greater sociability, Bernini won the commission to design the baldachin of Saint Peter’s Basilica, while the melancholic Borromini eventually ended his own life.
The design of Borromini’s San Carlo, a complex pattern of ovals, crosses, octagons, and hexagons, culminates in a lantern at the top of a dome illuminated by windows unseen from below. Bernini’s Sant’Andrea al Quirinale also employs hidden light sources to dramatize the ascension of the dome to a climactic lantern. But while Borromini reaches apotheosis through mathematical elaboration, Bernini embodies it with images of the saint in painting and sculpture.
Green’s film, itself a cerebral structure, climbs from the turgid purgatory of its characters’ mental and physical maladies into a welcome sense of wholeness and levity. These characters, Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione), an architectural historian; Aliénor Schmidt (Christelle Prot), his wife; Goffredo (Ludovico Succio); an architecture student; and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro), his invalid sister, meet by happenstance in the town of Stresa, on the Gulf of Borromeo (Borromini may be its namesake). The Schmidts have stopped here on the way to Rome, where Alexandre, who seems to have nothing left to say to his wife or to the world, hopes to be inspired to complete a book. On a silent walk by the bay, they encounter Goffredo supporting the fainting Lavinia. Aliénor immediately comes to their aid, dispatching Alexandre for the car.
Delaying their journey until they have news of Lavinia’s recovery, the Schmidts dine with Goffredo, who is as dynamic as his sister is frail. Perhaps out of mischief, perhaps out of wisdom—la sapienza—Aliénor suggests that she stay behind with Lavinia while her glum, laconic husband continue on with Goffredo. What an educational opportunity for the young man to accompany the learned professor to the great architectural shrines of the Baroque! And besides, the intuitive Aliénor foresees that the frisson of traveling with an unwanted companion, one who contrasts vividly with him in age and temperament, will goad her spouse into an emotional response and perhaps a reopening to experience and to her.
The gentlemen go to Rome, where Alexandre leads Goffredo on a spectacular tour of the churches. Impelled by his Italian manners in spite of himself to act as a guide, he describes with increasing warmth the structures’ varied methods of ascent to the light. A kind of talking cure and role reversal take place, with the novice Goffredo assuming the position of listener and healer and the expert Alexandre, that of an analysand articulating himself into being. Green tells this story through a cinematic survey of the buildings, with their metaphorical resemblance to the edifice of thought. If, as Goffredo insists, architecture is about light, so is film.
Meanwhile, while male intellects soar, Aliénor and Lavinia do their own talking, at first in bedside visits, and, as the girl’s health improves, on sunny patios. Their conversation, too, traverses silences and revelations, particularly of Lavinia’s mysterious illness, a shadow that throws into relief Goffredo’s brilliance. Lavinia believes that an unknown calamity threatens her beloved brother, and that by being sick she absorbs that threat into herself. In this interlude of his absence and her friendship with Aliénor, however, she recognizes that she herself is the cloud over Goffredo’s future, for his love for her binds him to her side, emotionally if not always physically.
By its conclusion, La Sapienza has vaulted to a happy ending, one suggestive of a Shakespearean romance, in which the two sufferers find ease and can express love for their partners—Alexandre by embracing his wife, and Lavinia by releasing her brother from their bond.