Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is a film about extreme poverty, exploitative labour, systems of cyclical and hierarchical abuse — and magic. At first, it’s impossible to discern the time the film is set in: a group of workers (sharecroppers) are living in the pastoral Italian countryside, but the land is removed of meaningful period signifiers. Slowly, some clues enter the frame. There’s a car (1970s, possibly?), a character has a mobile phone, slightly dated, and a Walkman (the late 1990s?). As wolves howl in the moonlight and the people toil in the day, it slowly becomes clear that they’re living in the near-present, working under feudal conditions implemented by the Marchesa Alfonsina (Nicoletta Braschi), a tobacco tycoon. They all live in a secluded estate, the Inviolata; but, just as the labourers don’t know that they’re working as slaves, so none of them realise that one of their number has a secret of his own.
This is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a gentle though guileless young man, with a tendency, as the other sharecroppers term it, to “stare into space.” He’s the workhorse of the outfit, asked to do innumerable menial jobs over and over again. He accepts all of them with a smile, and his pleasing manner hides the fact that he is abused in turn by those abused by the Marchesa. Her son, the Marquis Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), wonders who on earth Lazzaro could be doing any harm to. He sets up a scheme involving Lazzaro, earning his trust by calling him his “half-brother.” What exactly happens as a result of Tancredi’s design should be left to a viewer to discover: all that need be said is it made a full screen of people (myself included) audibly gasp.
After this, Rohrwacher makes a thrilling temporal and spatial leap, shifting the film into the future and away from its previous setting into the modern city. In the Inviolata, there was one kind of timelessness; in the city, there’s another. The experience of the impecunious does not change, all that alters are the methods by which they’re mistreated.
The film’s transformation might have been jarring were it not for the central, beatific performance by Tardiolo (an economics student by day). He plays Lazzaro as someone not quite of this world; he’s placid and yet totally receptive, displaying an openness to the people around him which could easily be mistaken for a child’s. In conversation, his voice lilts, and he tends to turn his whole body towards the person speaking (or ordering him around), as though there’s no other way of paying attention. His gestures are not to be ignored, with his moon-round, bright, beautiful face, but this is extraordinary physical acting as well. With his stocky figure, quick walk, and poise (his fists clenched before his trouser pockets), it’s clear that he’s ready to work at any moment of his life: his long, bandaged shoes are reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.
Rohrwacher’s film is based on a real incident of rural economic manipulation and combines neorealist patience with flights of illogicity and the folkloric. It’s easy to imagine, in a colder director’s hands, this concoction spoiling itself; but there’s a warmth infused throughout the film, from the vibrant 16mm photography and occasional associative editing to its performances. And even as the ending — a true heartbreaker — comes into sight, the film never loses its deep humanity or its humour in the face of incessant cruelty. Happy as Lazzaro is one of the great contemporary fables.
Image of director Alice Rohrwacher: Simona Pampallona via Wikimedia Commons.