On the surface, writer-director Eugène Green's film "La Sapienza" is slow, strange and awkward — but stick with it and it may win you over.
The film follows the struggles of French architect Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione) and his wife, Alienor (Christelle Prot). The two are alienated from each other and from their lives in general, as we see through the director's head-on shots, cropped like passport photos, and the deliberate pauses between methodical statements, like a language tape repeating definitions over and over.
When the two journey to Italy, spurred by a work call for Alexandre, an unexpected encounter with young siblings Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) changes everything. Alienor stays with Lavinia, who's suffering from a nervous disorder, while Alexandre continues with Goffredo, an architecture student.
The resulting journeys move inward as much as outward, tackling the pair's emotional obstacles in a direct way that few movies dare. The children, as well as various strangers, illuminate hard realities to Alexandre and Alienor, helping them to recover from past traumas and to rediscover the "beauty and light" that had been missing from their lives. The strange dialogue, while a bit gimmicky and at times exasperating, starts to make sense, like recitations of poetry or pieces of a dream. It's all about finding wisdom.
And the slow movements (as well as the language of light and beauty) mirror the gorgeous views of classical Italian architecture: stunning domes, columns, cupolas and colonnades infused with light, depth and a richness that's almost beyond words.
Almost always the architectural views are looking upward. You discover why in one of Alexandre's lessons to Goffredo (one of many powerful truisms delivered in the movie): "We encounter many obstacles that draw us back toward Earth, but inevitably we find ourselves moving upward again. Until, via an inescapable trajectory, we reach a source of light." It's a hopeful message in what is ultimately a very hopeful film.
The pace can feel plodding, but the observations on human frailty and redemption more than make up for it. Despite forays into the head, it's the movie's heart that makes it special.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. In French and Italian with subtitles.
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West L.A.