Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Cast: Agnese Graziani, Alba Rohrwacher, Luca Chikovani
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On the surface, Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature Happy as Lazzaro (or Lazzaro Felice) has much thematically in common with Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia’s A Sicilian Ghost Story. Both films utilise the conceits of magical realism and the fantastical to interrogate the harsh, exploitative realities of contemporary Italian society. They also use cruel, real life happenings as narrative jumping-off points – in Happy as Lazzaro, it’s a village forced to share crop long after the feudal-like practice had been outlawed. And they both contain a saintly adolescent male – the eponymous Lazzaro is quietly kind and loyal, always serving.
These similarities may be symptomatic of an increasing preference for the fantastical mode on the continent, especially when cinematically processing trauma, whether national or personal. However, their common elements naturally highlight their differences – whereas A Sicilean Ghost Story works to emulate Guillermo del Toro, Rohrwacher manages to transcend her neo-realism influences (e.g. Pasolini and Fellini) rather than merely pastiche them, winning the young auteur an award at Cannes for her screenplay, and making the beatific and surreal film required viewing.
Happy as Lazzaro opens with a sumptuous starry sky, unsullied by any urban orange haze, with Lazzaro “looking into the void” as a passer-by puts it. It’s a calm yet disorientating scene that prepares the viewer for the bizarre time-capsule village of Inviolata (Italian for unspoiled), cut off from civilisation by a broken bridge, whose proletarian populace is held in economic bondage by the evil Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna, the queen of cigarettes (played with malevolent glee by Nicoleta Braschi). The Marchesa has not shared with Inviolata’s population of 50 or so peasants that share-cropping (a form of tithe paid to the local landed gentry) has been outlawed, allowing her to grow rich off the peasants’ back-breaking labour and ignorance, hoarding intricate trinkets and antiques in her picturesque chateau on the hill.
Rohrwaher, with the aid of cinematographer Hélène Louvart (Pina, Petra) films Inviolata as a lush, bucolic idyll (shot in 16mm, the film stock’s grain heightens the earthy, rustic aesthetic) without undermining the farmhand’s hard lives or romanticising their poverty. The village functions as an extended family of sorts, and sweet-natured, pure-hearted Lazzaro (first-time actor Adriano Tardiolo) is at the villagers’ mercy, always happy to help and do as he is ordered, never expecting anything in return. When the Marchesa brings her son to Inviolata, Tancredi, a typically resentful teenager, is bored by the village’s remoteness, and hatches a plan with gentle, well-meaning Lazzaro to stage a fake kidnapping and steal a decent ransom from the Marchesa. For Lazzaro, the bond of Tancredi’s friendship is life changing; although the villagers are “liberated” by the local authorities, and Tancredi’s plans soon go awry.
Executive producer Martin Scorsese is famous for his Catholic sensibilities, which are playfully and damningly subverted by Happy as Lazzaro’s very modern take on saintliness in late stage consumer capitalism. Compare Lazzaro to Scorsese’s own famous hagiography, The Last Temptation of Christ, which typifies the conceits of sainthood – saints need to suffer, to sacrifice, to be martyred, to take up space and be worshipped or followed through their holy destinies.
These things never occur to innocent Lazzaro: he’s a working class saint who embodies the quietness of the disenfranchised and the oppressed. His story is not about his destiny but his quiet goodness and simple existence being overwhelmed by historical events, such as industrialisation. This is a magical, gut wrenchingly truthful piece of storytelling in a fantastical rendering of the neorealist mode – a fairytale and fable that resonates with centuries of Italian working class history.