Widely regarded as one of the most important architectural achievements of the Baroque era, the Church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome stands out for its bold juxtaposition of geometric shapes, its spiral dome and its resplendent, light-filled interior.
Though not a large church by European standards, it nonetheless remains the supreme accomplishment of its creator: 17th century Italian architect Francesco Borromini, whose prodigious talents unfortunately brought him more misery than joy. He committed suicide in 1667 at the age of 67.
Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza still operates as a church and as the home of Rome's municipal archives. It also plays a key role in "La Sapienza," opening Friday, a fictional movie that explores how Borromini's architecture changes the life of a contemporary architect who himself is suffering from an existential crisis.
The movie's title refers to Borromini's church but also evokes the somewhat archaic Italian word used during the Renaissance.
"When people try to define it, they either say it is 'knowledge' or 'wisdom.' But for me it's knowledge that leads to wisdom," writer-director Eugène Green said.
The Paris-based filmmaker is a Baroque specialist who once led the French stage company Théâtre de la Sapience. He recalled that as a young student pursuing art history, he dreamed of making a biopic of Borromini, using the real architecture as a backdrop.
"He's an artist who didn't make concessions," the director said by phone from Paris, in an interview conducted in French. "It's a mystical architecture. In the context of Roman Baroque architecture, it's a pared-down style — even the decorative aspects have a purpose in the larger form. I conceived my own artistic work in that manner."
Once he began making movies in the late '90s, Green realized he had no interest in costume dramas.
"As soon as you put a period costume on an actor, they try to act differently, like they're in the theater," he said.
Instead, his films attempt to capture the internal essence of the actors by having them speak in blank, emotionless tones, often looking directly at the camera.
The idiosyncratic style, which recalls filmmakers Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu, can be unsettling, Green conceded, but it is a deliberately anti-psychological approach that emphasizes the spiritual nature of the spoken word.
"La Sapienza" opens with stunning shots of the Italian countryside and Baroque architecture, only to transition to an industrial cityscape comprised of heinous Postmodern housing projects and office buildings. These are the creations of celebrated French architect Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione, seen last year in the Dardenne brothers' "Two Days, One Night" opposite Marion Cotillard). Though lauded by his peers, the architect is deeply unhappy and has stopped talking to his wife (Christelle Prot Landman), a social psychologist.
The couple travels to Italy, where Alexandre hopes to resume working on a long-postponed study of Borromini. But they are sidetracked when they encounter a young brother and sister (Ludovico Succio and Arianna Nastro), who are dealing with emotional problems of their own.
The movie stops in Rome and Turin as well as smaller towns, such as Stresa, Italy, and Bissone, Switzerland, the latter of which is the birthplace of Borromini.
Shooting in some of Borromini's churches didn't come cheap, according to the filmmaker. The scenes in Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza were particularly difficult as different sections are controlled by different organizations, each demanding thousands of euros to shoot.
Green was born and raised in Brooklyn and moved to Europe as a young man in 1968, eventually settling in Paris. He retains little love for his birth country, referring to it with a touch of mischievous humor as "Barbaria."
In the movie, Borromini's death is recounted in a long sequence illuminated by candlelight. Although Borromini was one of the leading Italian architects of the 17th century, his career fell short of his rival Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was more politically astute and landed bigger commissions.
The melancholic Borromini was often difficult to work with and lost work as a result, according to Kristoffer Neville, an associate professor of art history at UC Riverside.
At the same time, he was "very creative at a level that no one else was," Neville said. After a period of professional difficulty, the architect impaled himself on a sword and died a few days later.
Green knows something about professional struggle.
"I have a real problem working in France because of the spiritual nature of my films," he said. "In France, secularism is the official religion. It's almost like North Korea. All who contradict the official religion are banished."
Nonetheless, the director is already shooting his next movie in Paris: a story of a young man's search for his father, with the somewhat biblical title "The Son of Joseph."
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing at: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles