Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) (2018)
Alice Rohrwacher may only have three major feature films under her belt (Corpo Celeste (2011), The Wonders (2014) and Happy as Lazzaro (2018)), but this Fiesole-born director proves to be the one to be reckoned with. Happy as Lazzaro is an unusual, surreal and imaginative drama which stretches the limits of belief, and makes one ponder and wonder about the significance of leading an unselfish, innocent and open life in the modern age which, in turn, is geared primarily towards ruthless money-making and twisted concepts of success. Philosophical, enigmatic and moving, Happy as Lazzaro may start as this great drama about one family’s dominion over poor working people in Italy, but, by the end, it proves to be so much more than just a tale about the swindling and corruption of the innocent. From the hardship of a simple village life in Italy to the exploration of the metaphysical, Happy as Lazzaro covers much ground and is an ambitious, multifaceted film that, amazingly, succeeds on all fronts.
Our main character is Lazzaro, an ordinary peasant young man who lives in an Italian village of Inviolata (as it turns out, the village is far from being “free of violation” as its name may suggest). Lazzaro is hard-working and diligent, but he is never taken seriously by other villagers, who delegate to him the hardest tasks to do. Like Dostoyevsky’s main character in The Idiot (1869), Lazzaro is deceptively simple. He may appear child-like in his behaviour, but he is also a highly intuitive, spiritual human being who feels keenly the pain of others and is aware of the “higher purpose” of life. His innocence and goodness may be mistaken for mental deficiency. Alice Rohrwacher painstakingly sets out the ways of the village and Lazzaro’s daily work there, underlying the hard life of its inhabitants who in their hearts only desire to be free of one rich family exploiting them. De Luna is the family who “owns” the villagers and exploits them for its own financial benefit. The rich family, who runs a successful tobacco business, say that the village is in debt to them. On the scene arrives young Tancredi, the son of the powerful Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna, and strikes an unlikely friendship with Lazzaro. One can see how both could be curious about each other, and the director tries to contrast the two not only in terms of their different social standing and views, but also in terms of their looks. A little on a chubby side, dark-haired and good-natured Lazzaro stands in stark contrast to lean, blond and cynical Tancredi. When Tancredi exerts its influence over Lazzaro and asks Lazzaro to partake in his false kidnapping operation, things start to get really interesting.
The second part of the film is different from the first: if we were first shown the green and relatively peaceful Italy: the colourful village of Inviolata, then the second half of the film transports us to the outskirts of a bleak and depressing industrial town full of poor people and refugees. Will Lazzaro find his friend Tancredi there? Director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher (I Am Love (2009)) plays Antonia, a person who knew Lazzaro in the village and takes a liking to him, seeking to shelter him as he finds himself confused by the city. Lazzaro’s adventures in the greedy, modern city begin as he acquires new friends and faces new adversaries.
It is easy to see why Alice Rohrwacher won the Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival. The story in Happy as Lazzaro makes important statements about exploitation of people, while slowly sliding into this strange, fairy-tale-like allegory. It propels forward with seemingly nothing more by way of fuel than imagination and spontaneity, and, while it may be a little random and aimless at times, it still appears profound and is even humorous at times. Village folklore and politics, divide between rich and poor, character study of an apparent saint, friendship, unshakable belief and forgiveness, Rohrwacher has got it all and much more covered.
Happy as Lazzaro may be a bit disjointed, but it is also surprising and profound. Beautiful in many respects, the film may not be for those who like their films realistic and logical, but it is also admirable in the way that it dares to be so different. Its main character and his path are memorable parables to be remembered as we march forward in the twenty-first century, a century that is becoming known for insufficient face-to-face human communication, and for its worries related to human loneliness and the lack of sufficient empathy and altruism in people. There should be more films like Happy as Lazzaro made that both surprise and challenge us, and I cannot wait to watch this film again. 9/10