VIFF coverage: architecture as a theme

Part of Converge’s ongoing review of films in the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), on until October 10.

Cathedrals of Culture

CathedralsOfCultureCathedrals of Culture is the single most disappointing film I’ve yet seen at VIFF. Cathedrals is an ode to modern architecture that is divided into six segments, each covering a unique structure and made by a different director: Wim Wenders, Robert Redford, Michael Glawogger, Margreth Olin, Karim Ainouz, and Michael Madsen. The result should have been an insightful glimpse into the power and significance that buildings have in our lives, and how these very buildings can indeed be said to contain souls and personalities of their own.

Instead, these auteurs give us dull, meandering “insights,” often spoken from the perspective of the building in question, and managing to be simultaneously grandiose and trite. They range from pretentious at their worst to banal at their best. (“I am a house,” repeats the Oslo Opera House ad nauseum, save its qualifying rejoinder “Except when I am not a house.”) I would like to imagine that if a building could speak, it would have something slightly more interesting to say.

There are times when some of the segments become noteworthy; Robert Redford’s ode to the Salk Institute in California adopts a more traditional documentary style, utilizing multiple voiceovers from various employees at the institute, as well as old interviews with the architects, and mix of old and new photographs and video footage. This fosters a more dynamic experience than the other segments. However, it often loses its sense of narrative and regresses into singing the same tired praises of itself over and over. The problem is rarely the quality of the buildings singled out (although they do inadvertently reveal the flaws inherent in some modern architecture), but the schmaltzy, self-satisfied tone of the voiceovers.

Those who are seeking a substantial discussion of the sacred and secular qualities of architecture, or its significance in our lives, will be disappointed.

La Sapienza

SapienzaLaEugene Green’s latest film borders on great but can’t quite seem to overcome its directorial idiosyncrasies (which, while admittedly part of its charm, wear out their welcome). Renowned architect Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione), in dire need of inspiration to complete his latest project, decides to visit Italy to rediscover his muse in the Baroque buildings of Francesco Borromini. His wife, also in need of new inspiration, accompanies him, but their marriage is far from perfect. Her smile is luminous and bright, yet it never rises to her face in his presence, and they are both so stilted in their banal conversations with each other, that in those moments the film borders on self parody. This helps to undercut the tension of their relationship, and allows the audience to see both the tragedy and comedy present in their lives, just as it is in ours. When this is realized, the acting becomes less stilted and instead takes on a truer-than-life feel.

But while the film is concerned about love — between husband and wife, brother and sister, mentor and pupil — it addresses these concerns through its use of space and light; the two elements which, according to the film, are the most essential to great architecture and to living the good life. As Alexandre’s pupil (wise beyond his youth) says, “All our misfortune comes from being derived a place where we could receive the light of God and love of fellow man. A place to be loved.” He is not simply referring to a “place,” but spatial concepts of how buildings open up and allow us to realize the spaces available to us. It is a film which warmly embraces the convergence of the sacred space in architecture, the dynamic between past and present, and reaches out to touch on the different forms in which love and happiness can manifest.