Happy as Lazzaro Review
Much like her second film, The Wonders, Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro has a timeless quality that is rooted in the past as much as it is the present. This slow, but well-paced drama, unexpectedly unfolds as a slice of traditional folklore, sitting somewhere between classic Italian neorealism and fantastical storytelling. Rohrwacher’s tale about a young simpleton is one for the ages that brings Old Italy face-to-face with its new reality, where the landscape may have changed but the people populating it remain pretty much the same.
Time is never clearly defined in Lazzaro’s (Adriano Tardiolo) world and as a shocking mid-film twist later reveals, neither does it seem to matter to the young man. When we first meet him it appears to be at some point in the mid-19th century, where he lives with his large family in a tiny countryside village called Inviolata, on the estate of Marquise de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi). But as the story progresses small clues confirm we are in the 1980s, although the harsh life of toiling poverty these people are subjected to has left them chained to another age entirely (think The Tree of Wooden Clogs).
They are sharecroppers, a practice made illegal in Italy in the 70s, but their isolation from the modern world has left them unaware of their rights. Instead, they slave through the day working the Marquises’ tobacco fields, forever stuck in debt and never receiving a wage, while the Marquise lives in a luxurious mansion. Lazzaro is a reliable, hardworking boy who barely utters a word. At times he becomes lost in his own imagination (“Lazzaro is staring off into the void again,” we hear on numerous occasions) and because of his willingness to help others he is often taken advantage of.
First-time actor Tardiolo is perfectly cast, his slight awkwardness and lack of experience playing into the role of a character whose starry-eyed gaze places you into his mind’s eye. Slowly Lazzaro emerges as the centrepiece of the film, where he makes friends with the Marquises’ spoiled son, Tancredi (Tommaso Ragno), who decides to run away from home and hide in Lazzaro’s secret cliff-side den. But he has no interest in being real friends and only wants to use the farmhand for his selfish ends. His bright idea is to fake a kidnapping and extract ransom money from his hardened mother but she refuses to pay and when the police are finally called, the workers discover the truth about the life they’ve been living all these years.
The first hour of Happy as Lazzaro is in no rush to find a clear direction, taking its time to ingratiate us into the threadbare world of those suffering under the Marquises’ rule. When the unexpected twist almost quite literally drops out of the sky you may wonder where it could possibly go next given what’s come before, but its allegorical form is crystallised in the second half of the film when we are transported into the present day. Some of the workers reappear in their now urbanised surroundings with Rohrwacher making it clear that little has changed – the poor still suffer and the rich continue to exploit them.
DoP Hélène Louvart’s grainy 16mm round-edged frame creates a sense of nostalgia that adds to the timelessness of Rohrwacher’s beguiling tale, the director rightfully avoiding sentimentality where it would be easy to overplay the innocence of her creation, Forrest Gump-style. Lazzaro’s naivety sees him glide from one situation to another, living only in the moment, although there is more going on behind those eyes than there appears to be. He exists as some sort of Christ-like figure who has been called to witness humanity’s sins and frailties. What he also represents is the conscience of an entire nation – one it can’t seem to live with in the end.
Happy as Lazzaro opens in UK cinemas April 5th.