Writer/ director Alice Rohrwacher is carving herself out to be an imminent and unique film-maker of the Italian but also the independent world cinema. With previous films such as Corpo Celeste and The Wonders lauded to much praise, now comes Happy As Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) a refreshingly twisted, bittersweet charmed realist fable which won her Best Screenplay at Cannes last year. A time-shifting, semi-period drama of sorts about a group of isolated Italian peasant farmers who unbeknownst to them are living a life of deprevation and slavery. Random plot twists at various plots cleverly pull the rug under your eyes, as we watch events unfold through the perpetual mesmerized disposition of young man Lazzaro, who for him the world is full of wonder and possibility.
This small, tightly knit farming community live in an area called Inviolata which has been isolated by floods since the late 70s. Beginning scenes of an old fashion courtship, as a young girl is clumsily serenaded in the middle of the night. Rooms are lt from kerosene lamps, everyone is dressed in traditional clothing, giving the impression we are in the early parts of the 20th century. The farmers work on the land, harvesting the tobacco fields in a sharecropping scheme, working unpaid in a bid to reduce a bottomless debt to the notorious Alfonsina de Luna, “Queen of Cigarettes”, the marquis of the estate. It’s not until Alfonsina’s son Tancredi pays a visit with his sister, all decked out in colourful modern day attire, bleach blonde hair, holding an incredibly bulky 90s mobile phone and a trashy Euro dance track blaring from his portable radio, throwing viewers off, of what time period we are actually in.
Amidst all this we meet a striking young man, Lazzaro; a mixture of adorable kind-hearted boy and village fool. Constantly being beckoned left, right and centre to assist on one thing or another and without a seconds thought he attentively obeys each call. Lazzaro forms a relationship with Tancredi, taken in by his otherworldly appearance, who in turn convinces him to forge his own kidnap. After a few days Tancredi is reported missing, the police arrive to discover Alfonsina’s illegal set up and she is subsequently arrested on slavery charges.
The narrative then enters Grimm fairy-tale territory; whilst still in the wild with Tancredi, Lazzaro falls off a cliff and miraculously survives unscathed fall, saved by a wolf. When he awakes, as if he slipped through some paradigm shift, he finds himself in the present day, 20-25 years later, not having aged one bit. The Inviolata is now deserted, Lazzaro makes his way to the city and locates his family who have all grown up or grown very old and have created themselves another isolated ghetto in the slums of the city. They greet Lazzaro with a mixture of horror and bewilderment, but nevertheless welcome him back into into the fold.
The director shoots on old-school super 16mm, a light beige tinges to the whole thing, harking us back to the European cinema of the 60s and 70s. Seemingly unconcerned with a plausible narrative, but more focused on character exploration and the depiction of certain emotions, with an underlying social commentary. She fuses modern realist fantasy with an element of the disturb, which never deters but augments the viewing experience into something more bizarre and titillating. Time periods are warped in the subtlest of way; what start of as slight clues such a with a piece of technology or some modern attire, originally feel out of place but gradually take over and alter your perception completley.
Adriano Tardiolo’s Lazzaro is exquisite as the innocent bumpkin, with a distinctive natural presence; his looks, body shape and infrequent conversation reminds of young men of a by-gone era. Lazzaro wears his peasantry unabashedly, there is a complete lack of introspection, this constant catering to other people’s wants and desires who often ridicule or discard him is never met with any retaliation or judgement, but instead with an amused eagerness, his penetrating wide-eyes pierce through all the faff, looking straight to our honest core.
Rohrwacher never condescends the farmers but sees them more as the product of exploitation; yes they are often portrayed as uncouth and comedic throughout, but what seeps through is that despite their hardships they retain their happy go-lucky-ness, basking in the security their unit provides and confident that the stars above will provide for them, with Lazzaro being their flag bearer.
Happy As Lazzaro is out today.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
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