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Film review: Antonio Gaudí (Blu-ray release)

19 November 2021

Stephen Brown reviews films about an architect

Detail of pinnacles of La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, from the disc

Detail of pinnacles of La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, from the disc

ANTONI GAUDl (1852-1926), most famed for designing Barcelona’s still unfinished Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, was the subject of a 1984 meditative documentary. The Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara gives his piece the Spanish title Antonio Gaudí (Cert. PG) rather than the architect’s original Catalonian name. No matter.

The film is already available via DVD and streaming services, but now the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release has copious interesting extras, including a 1961 Ken Russell programme about the man, and another that explores why Gaudí has obtained the sobriquet “God’s architect”. Teshigahara opts for a near-wordless survey of the Gaudí buildings and sculptures, letting the score of Toru Takemitsu et al. do the talking.

The director of the parabolic Woman in the Dunes (1964) finds a kindred spirit in Gaudí’s mutual fascination with an underlying sense of meaning and design in seemingly arbitrary patterns of creation. Such strange manifestations emanating from basic DNA open up a universe that mere humanity could never have conceived. If Teshigahara could see a world in a grain of sand, then Gaudí discerned heaven in a wild flower, translating the natural world into architectural forms. Staircases resembling caterpillars, free-standing (equilibrated) tree-like structures, and gates composed of leaves are among examples of how the natural world informed his designs.

Teshigahara gives viewers time to reflect on what Gaudí’s creations add up to. The director’s own work often reflects an existential frame of mind, sceptical of contemporary rationalism and where it has led the human race. This, too, is a meeting point with Gaudí. The sensual curves and crooked contours of his works convey a sense of the mysterious nature of reality which can make ultimate sense only in the light of eternity.

While not averse to employing it, he came to scorn Gothic architecture: “a style created by the compasses”, he said. The Christian faith was not one of straight lines; nor, he asserted, should church buildings be, which gave ethereal witness that our ways were not God’s ways. The poet Emily Dickinson, when speaking of the truth, suggested that it was best to “tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies”. Gaudí certainly followed that dictum, believing more and more that it was the primary route to understanding the sheer ineffability of the divine nature.

The final part of the film is devoted to working on La Sagrada Familia. Now it was only God and the church that mattered to him. Gaudí knew that he would never see his dream realised before dying. Completion is due in 2026, more than a century after plans were drawn up, including the 18 bell towers that draw us into the architect’s heavenly vision.

Teshigahara, by lingering over design details, encourages us to let go of imaginative restraints. This particular documentary epitomises some words of the Renaissance architect Fra Giovanni Giocondo (c.1435–1515): “There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!” Gaudí dared to dream the impossible dream; and so should we.

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