Happy as Lazzaro (2018) (Lazzaro felice)

Happy as Lazzaro by Alice Rohrwacher is a magical-realist fable that features types of exploitation.


by Alexa Dalby

Happy as Lazzaro

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Happy as Lazzaro starts in the significantly named, remote village of Inviolata in the sun-baked hills of the pristine Italian countryside.

The opening scenes show a big, happy, loving but desperately poor peasant family ranging in generations from infants to grandma celebrating an imminent wedding as best they can. Though it’s the present day, from their clothes and surroundings it could be a timeless, idyllic pastoral – either set centuries in the past or maybe a joyful TV ad for Italian olive oil or tomatoes – except that they’re so poor that their house only has one lightbulb that they have to take from room to room as they need it.

Lazzaro (perfectly cast Adriano Tardiolo) is a hard-working young man, one of the extended family. His angelic face emanates innocence and purity, and he willingly and cheerfully undertakes any task that’s given to him by anyone. He’s put-upon but he doesn’t know it. His name is significant – it translates as ‘Lazarus’, giving a biblical hint.

But in reality the family are being exploited by the wealthy local Marchesa (Nicoletta Braschi), who treats them as unpaid labourers to grow and harvest the tobacco crop that fuels her cigarette manufacturing empire. They do this in their isolated ignorance because she hasn’t told them the law has changed and sharecropping is now forbidden. Her justification is that everyone exploits someone.

Life continues like this until her spoilt, rich-boy son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani with bleached blonde hair, dressed in black) befriends Lazzaro in the same way as you might a pet. He exploits Lazzaro’s loyalty and naivety by pressuring him into helping with a scam to make it appear he’s been kidnapped in order to extract cash from his mother.

It’s difficult to write about this film without a spoiler, but halfway through there’s a disorientating gear shift from a kind of slow-moving, idealised neo-realism into a realm of unexpected magical realism.

Lazzaro, years later, searches for his so-called friend Tancredi in a nameless, grey, inhospitable city. He finds there some people he knew from Inviolata, but now they are being exploited in a different way, still poor, sleeping in an empty water tank and living on their wits. They’re trapped in another – though different – cycle of poverty and oppression and Lazzaro is still the otherworldly blank canvas that the rest of this story plays out on.

The film weaves strong, inescapable threads of morality, political and social injustice through the canvas of a fairy tale or a fable that intrinsically has images of great beauty. There’s the countryside, the city, the people, the contrast of rich and poor, decency and corruption, and beautiful, magical scenes, such as one where you can literally see the notes of organ music wafting out of a cathedral and being stolen.

Alice Rohrwacher (previous film The Wonders) has made a hard-to-classify creation of the
the imagination that resonates powerfully and for long after the film ends.

Happy as Lazzaro premiered at Cannes, where it won Best Screenplay, and is released on 5 April 2019 in the UK. It is available on Netflix.

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