La Sapienza/Eugene Green

Little known in the US but adored in Europe, director Eugene Green applies his encyclopedic knowledge of Baroque history to this tale of an Italian architect who turns to the works of 17th-century architect Francesco Borromini for desperately needed inspiration.  With his signature formalism and highly stylized method of directing actors, Green conveys a world hidden behind the one we see, and only superficially at that.  La Sapienza was a highlight of this year’s New York Film Festival. Availability:  New York City Lincoln Plaza Cinema, opens March 20.  Click here for showtimes.  Thanks to Julia Pacetti, JMP Verdant Communications, and Rodrigo Brandao, Kino Lorber, Inc., for arranging this interview.


DT:  You’re known for your exacting formalism—highly stylized shots with extreme symmetry of form, even action. What does this kind of formalism add to cinema?


EG:  All real art has form.  The expression of emotions comes through form, so for me, all real films have a formal language.  I found this formal language when I made my first film, and it suits me.  I don’t think that form is a crime for an artist.


DT:  I don’t think it’s a crime at all.  I was just wondering if it’s an aesthetic principle, or if it’s simply the way you best express yourself through your art.


EG:  Yes—the form I use is the way I best express myself, but I think that all important film directors have a formal language.  For example, the Dardenne brothers, whom I esteem very much, are considered to be realistic filmmakers, but actually their realism is based on a formal language which is very structured. It’s very different from mine, of course, but often it seeks to capture the same things, which are the essence of cinema: the reality that is hidden in daily reality. When we see things around us, we only see the surface of things, we only see what is superficial. There’s another reality which is hidden beneath it, and the genius of cinema is to take fragments of the material world and make us see things in them that we wouldn’t have seen if we had seen them in their context.


DT:  In this film, you play with notions of space as an element filled with light. That idea echoes through the dialogue, and the buildings, and the discussions about architecture, and the cinematography as well.  Does the notion have a deeper meaning, especially in relation to the Chaldean character at the end?


EG: The Chaldean says his people are disappearing because they don’t have a space, a place to receive light. The function of architecture, but also of cinema, is to create spaces and to structure light; to enable spectators who are in contact with the work of art, whether it’s a film or a building, to be able to receive the light and spiritual energy, which in turn awakens a spiritual energy in themselves. For me, that’s the real function of art in general.


DT:  Your characters, who long to be happy, seem to be weighted down by their own unhappy pasts, the way the buildings, which strive for the light, are also weighted down, by their massiveness and their own history. Were you going for that parallel between the human factor and the architectural factor?


EG:  What you said about the characters of course is completely true. I don’t think the buildings are weighted down. Even though they’re made very heavy by their material existence, they were made expressly to enable light to penetrate and to structure light, and by the presence of light they become light in the sense of the opposite of heavy. If you connect the parallel with our civilization in general, it’s represented by the shots at the beginning, of the suburbs of Paris and the very recent structures that have been built there. That’s a state of civilization which is weighted down by its past because it doesn’t know how to use its past to make it come into its present.  The past is felt only as a weight, as something oppressive, whereas it should be a form of energy that enables the present to create new things. So that’s, I think, the parallel that I would make between the weight upon the characters and the weight upon buildings—it’s rather the weight on the contemporary buildings.


DT:  Everything also seems to be haunted by ghosts—the people, the buildings, the cities, enforcing the feeling that there’s a burden from the past.  But you seem to love the past; you’re known for reviving Baroque theater.


EG: There are two attitudes toward the past. Our current attitude is to consider the past as something that must be preserved, but in formaldehyde—a token that has nothing to do with us that has to be kept away from the present. Whereas for me the past should be present; it should be living in the present. That doesn’t mean living in the past, but it means that you don’t come out of nothing. A tree doesn’t appear in one day; a tree starts from its roots. The problem with modern civilization is that there is actually no present, because it excludes the past and it’s always running toward the future, which in fact does not exist, through what is called the digital revolution. I’m not really favorable toward the digital revolution. It evacuates the present, because people today are never in the present.  When you look in the street, people are never where they are. They don’t see what’s around them, the people around them.  They have no connection to their present. They’re looking at a tablet or a telephone, which is just numbers, which just shows things that don’t exist, so they’re not where they are. I think that the only hope for civilization is to live in its present, but the present contains the past, and the present should open up toward the future, but a real future, not a future that’s in a digital tablet.


DT:  Rather than having your characters speak naturally, you have them declaim, frequently to the camera itself.  Why do you use this technique, which is so unlike the way people usually speak?


EG:  I have to disagree with you. It’s actually not declamation. Declamation is what they use in the theater, where everything is made bigger than life, whereas I ask the characters to speak naturally, that is, with the natural accents we use when we speak every day, but to speak as if they’re speaking to themselves so that they don’t make any rhetorical effects, they’re just words, which for me are there to bring out their hidden interior energy. What we call naturalism in the theater or the cinema is actually coded intonations which aren’t natural at all. For example, when we’re speaking and there’s punctuation, the natural thing is to make a descending cadence, to go up a little bit on the last note and then go down. According to the importance of the punctuation, the musical interval is bigger or smaller. However, actors who have been formed by the current standard go up when there’s punctuation, so that’s not natural at all. When I see psychological acting, it seems forced to me, because the actors are always thinking about what they should be doing and they’re doing very standardized things. My diction is the natural diction, actually, but it’s smaller than what we do when we’re speaking to someone else for the reason that I gave.

They don’t speak their lines looking at the camera.  In the dialogue, they’re looking at each other. When you speak to someone, a great part of the energy that you receive comes from his gaze and from looking directly at him or her. In the traditional way of filming, you put the camera on the side, as if it were hidden, so you only see a part of the person’s face and a part of his gaze, and you don’t see the other person who’s listening to him. When there’s dialogue in my films—since the dialogue is very important and the dialogue becomes very intense—I put the camera between the two characters. Technically of course the actor is looking at the camera, but in the fiction he’s not looking at the camera, he’s looking at the person who’s on the other side.


DT: The way you have your actors deliver their lines struck me as being very similar to the way Bresson worked with his actors.


EG:  Yes.  Let’s say that I’m looking for the same thing Bresson was looking for, and yes, he also didn’t want psychological acting. The intonations are actually a bit different, but the principal idea is the same. I recognize very easily, very simply, that I was very deeply influenced by Bresson. I discovered him when I was still in New York, when I was an adolescent. It’s an influence which has been assimilated. My films are very different from his. He didn’t call them actors; he called them models, because they weren’t professional actors, whereas most of mine are professional actors, but what he wanted to do with them, yes, of course there is a relation between the two.


DT:  What other filmmakers do you admire?


EG:  There are a lot of filmmakers whom I admire, but among the classics, my three great references are Bresson, Antonioni, and Ozu.


DT:  Makes sense.  Three pretty good filmmakers, too.  In the film, the architect’s passion was the seventeenth-century architect Francesco Borromini, who based his architecture on geometric figures rather than proportions of the human body. Were you trying to replicate that in your compositions?


EG: I used the same visual language that I used in my other films, but I’ve always had a very strong affinity for Borromini, so there must be some sort of tie, some sort of elected affinity. In any case, it wasn’t a conscious intellectual thing.


DT:  Borromini admired older forms of art, just like you. Can you talk about your involvement with Baroque theater?


EG: It goes back to my childhood, when I had a very passionate interest in Shakespeare, who actually represents English Baroque theater. Then I discovered French Baroque theater and Italian opera of the seventeenth century, and it had great personal meaning for me. I realized that when I read those texts, they had great power, but when I saw them acted in a style that didn’t correspond to the text, for me they didn’t work on stage. I made a parallel with the Early Music movement, which I followed from the 1960s on, and by going back to the style and the form of when that music was contemporary, it actually made it more living for contemporary audiences. I tried to do the same thing for theater, but in the context of the French cultural situation it was very difficult to propose something like that.


DT:  I’m sure. How did you do that—how did you translate Baroque music to theater?


EG: It wasn’t directly from the music. For fifteen years I did a lot of research in the National Library. I wrote a thesis. I never finished it because I had no desire to teach, but I did publish a book called La Parole Baroque (The Baroque Word). It’s never been translated. I also did research in general on Baroque civilization, on architecture, on painting, on music, and philosophy, so I arrived at a global vision of the Baroque civilization. For me it’s a model for the present, because during the Baroque century, from the end of the sixteenth until the beginning of the eighteenth century, European man was able to live simultaneously two proofs which modern reason would consider to be exclusive and contradictory. I think that’s one of the problems of our civilization—to want everything to be rational, as well as the idea that there is only one truth that excludes all other truths.  It’s a bit complicated to explain here, but to sum it up, let’s say that my research on Baroque civilization had an existential meaning for me as a man in the twentieth and twenty-first century.


DT:  So would you say that your cinema is essentially Baroque?


EG: No. The parallel is that cinema, like Baroque civilization, is based on an oxymoron. It unites two things that reason would consider to be contradictory. Cinema takes its raw material from real life—material in the material world—but it enables you to see things that were hidden in those fragments of reality. That’s a sort of oxymoron, and that’s also the basis of Baroque civilization.


DT:  When you spoke earlier about theater actors, it made me think of Christopher Plummer’s performance in Othello. I’ve never heard language sound like that before.


EG:  When I was an adolescent, I saw Christopher Plummer in the theater. He’s a very great actor because he’s able to keep the music of language and the rhythm of language, which is part of its meaning. That’s something we’ve largely forgotten in contemporary theatrical practice.


DT:  Exactly.  I was completely blown away by that performance. To finish, are you working on anything else?


EG:  I’m working on two new films.  One is in postproduction—a documentary about the Basques and their language. The other is a fiction I’m going to be shooting in June and July in Paris.


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