“La Sapienza,” opening March 20 at New York's Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, is a rarity: a fictional film about real architecture. Director Eugène Green follows Alexandre, a disillusioned French architect, and his companion, Goffredo, an 18-year-old who is about to enter architecture school, on a trip to Rome to visit Borromini's masterpieces. They have little to say, but the camera lingers on the architecture long after the dialogue (in French and Italian, with English subtitles) flickers out.
Alexandre is known for, among other creations, a "rectangle on two matchsticks in Sao Paolo," which, he explains, is a hospital without windows so the patients will be ready for their coffins. (Throughout the film, lightness and darkness are used as metaphors for good and evil.) Asked to bulldoze a French village for a new development, he refuses, then travels to Italy to try to recover his love of architecture. During a stop in Stresa (Borromini’s birthplace), his wife encourages him to continue traveling with Goffredo— who tells them he will someday change the world with his buildings, including a temple where people of all religions will see the light. When Goffredo talks of wanting to make spaces, Alexandre tells the boy that “spaces are nothing but emptiness." The film, with its perfectly composed but largely emotionless sequences, variously proves and disproves the contention.
There are mysterious digressions, one depicting the last night of Borromini's life, when he stabs himself, expecting, he says, to see the light. Another shows a socialite get-together. Both scenes take place in portentously dark rooms. The pilgrimage includes stops, and, thankfully, a bit of comic relief, at Borromini's Church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, the movie's namesake.
In the end, Alexandre tells his wife that he will look for sapience (which Green defined in an interview as "knowledge that leads to wisdom—all other knowledge is useless"), and that if he finds it he will share it through architecture that helps people to, once again, see the light. “La Sapienza” has no surprises, except how good 350-year-old buildings, as depicted by Green and cinematographer Raphael O'Byrne, look on 21st century screens.