Two Films Capture the Genius of Gaudí

Film still from ‘Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation’ (image courtesy First Run Features)

Can a film program be too Gaudí? Graced with Stefan Haupt’s efficient, if a little odd, documentary on the architect’s famously unfinished church, Sagrada Família, the Film Society of Lincoln Center (and at least one other theater) saw a match made in Barcelona and paired it with Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí (1984), the rare architecture documentary that has achieved “cult” status. Good news for Gaudí fans.

It’s hard to fathom, but the Sagrada Familía has been in the process of being built for over 125 years. With so much history, so many tales, stops, starts, architects, and all manner of craftspersons, Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation (2012) is blessed with a chewy subject.

Haupt interviews a slew of those involved, meeting a foreman and the current lead architect, stained-glass makers and a priest. He also speaks with some less predictable folks: computer technicians, an agnostic sculptor, a Japanese sculptor who converted to Catholicism in order to see the world as Gaudí, a devout Catholic, might have seen it. Haupt’s film is balanced, rooted, and engaged; it’s also clearly driven by enchantment. For all its equanimity and effort, Sagrada is touched by the discovery of the sublime. Haupt’s touring camera occasionally glimpses a waifish, spirited figure (dancer Anna Huber) materializing by a wall or on staircase with her pixie haircut. These ghostly embellishments and awe of place keep Sagrada from being all business — although a dry, matter-of-fact narrator (at least in the English-language version) doesn’t help, sounding like a voice you’d hear in high school when the teacher is sick and the sub pops in a sad, resigned video. With any luck, the German and French speakers pack more life into their readings.

Sagrada Familia sculptor Etsuro Sotoo
Sculptor Etsuro Sotoo in ‘Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation’

Above all else, Sagrada is a hardworking biography of a place, and the ideas that take hold there. What is the nature of a project whose master is long dead, its origins literally fragmented (Gaudí’s models where smashed by anarchists during the Spanish Civil War)? What is the contemporary meaning of an endeavor that’s conscripted thousands over generations? What is the limit of genius? Sagrada itself may not be haunting, but it knows that its subject is.

By contrast, whatever Teshigahara knew, he wasn’t telling — at least not in words. He avoids commentary and narration, in return giving vision, editing, and sound huge freedom to convey a fantasia of texture, shape, and movement. Buildings are flitted over and opened up, seen in bites and bunches. We glimpse Gaudí’s famed Casa Batlló from a distance and then close in for details: curving pillars, scaly tiles, serpentine staircases. The camera walks, pans, stares, and cranes.

Teshigahara returned from a long break from filmmaking to revisit Gaudí and Barcelona, having toured Spain many years earlier, in 1959. Antonio Gaudí is a searching hall of visions, stirring up as much as it records. Toru Takemitsu, Teshigahara’s frequent collaborator, supplies a dynamic, often trippy score, keeping the pace bold and flowing. Symphonic, entrancing, and sensuous, Antonio Gaudí is a poetic encounter with the Catalan’s fantastic work.

For those keeping score, Sagrada focuses on the facts of the Sagrada Família; Antonio Gaudi evokes its impression. The exhaustive former fills in what the nearly wordless latter leaves out. Not quite the zany, beautiful mismatch of Felix and Oscar, but the two still make for a contrasting but complementary couple.

Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation and Antonio Gaudí are both playing (not as a double feature) through December 25 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (144 West 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan).

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