Happy As Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice)

Italy (2018) Dir. Alice Rohrwacher

“Human beings are like animals. Set them free and they realize they are slaves locked in their own misery.”

This is probably true but that is no reason to exploit people for personal, selfish gain, though such a practice will continue as long as there is any form of chain of command. But would the world be a better place if people were all more inherently altruistic or will they still be taken advantage of? In other words, what price happiness?

Sometime in the mid-80’s the isolated estate of Inviolata was a tobacco farm belonging to Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi) aka “Queen of Cigarettes”, a tyrannical exploiter of 54 farmhands of all ages forced to work unpaid in a sharecropping scheme. Among them is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a simple young man willing to do whatever is asked of him, which some take advantage of.

When morale starts to sharply decline, Alfonsinia thinks getting tougher with the workers is the answer, but her spoiled son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) is a little more sympathetic. Tancredi befriends the impressionable Lazzaro, using him to fake a kidnapping to extort money from his mother, but it backfires spectacularly for both him and Alfonsinia. In the midst of this, Lazzaro takes a nasty fall off the side of a cliff, and when he awakes things a lot different.

Even if one has no religious leaning like yours truly, the name Lazarus should at least be familiar as the saint Jesus supposedly brought back to life four days after his death. The titular character of Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature shares more than a name with the biblical zombie; he too is seemingly able to beat death and is revived, though more than four days have passed in his case.

Ordinarily, this would qualify as a spoiler, especially such a seismic mid-film twist as this, which I would actively avoid sharing but it makes it rather difficult to discuss Happy As Lazzaro just on the first half alone. Rohrwacher sort of presents us with two films in one but sort of doesn’t, as the characters remain the same, though the same issues are prevalent to both – that being the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Based loosely on true events, the timeline of the first half is deliberately ambiguous, at first appearing to be post-war, based on the plain pauper attire of the farmhands and lack of amenities, before Alfonsinia’s agent Nicola (Natalino Balasso) arrives at the farm on a motor scooter with a truck in tow, wearing a 70’s style suit. When Tancredi shows up, he as a walkman, sports bleach-blonde hair and carries an early mobile phone, now suggesting the 90’s.

As Rohrwacher has shot this on 16mm film, just like its equally bucolic predecessor The Wonders, the pale colour palette and inherent grain also creates a distinctly vintage look to enhance the sparse, threadbare existence of the exploited workers. Even in the de Luna mansion, the mobile phone is the most modern piece of technology found among the dated aesthetic, in line with the financial slum the family is also feeling.

The opening quote of this review is attributed to Alfonsinia, who goes onto explain that exploitation is an endless circle, the example being how Lazzaro’s natural, savant naïve  helpfulness is taken for granted by the other farmhands. But what isn’t considered by Alfonsinia is that the chain is broken by Lazzaro being unable even to entertain anything but his indentured servitude, when Tacredi plans to exploit to teach his mother a lesson.

Lazzaro’s accident is a precursor to long overdue the fall of the house of de Luna, though his resurrection isn’t explained by any reasonable means, tied only to a symbolic folktale about wolves which I must confess I didn’t fully understand. It would appear the time jump brings us to modern times, judging by the rustic barren landscapes Inviolata now replaced a heavily developed, progressive mercantile environment, and the plain attire of the residents now colourful designer label wardrobes.

Yet Lazzaro hasn’t changed one iota unlike everyone else, making his reappearance a huge shock to those who recognise him, including Antonia (Alba Rohrwacher), a former maid of the de Luna household and teen mum. Back on the farm Antonia was the only person who didn’t abuse Lazzaro’s good nature but the events of time has seen her compromise her own virtue to survive in a modern world, her status no better than before.

Unless one can piece together the symbolism of the wolf and some of the more subtle – dare I say arcane? – elements of the film that blur the lines between reality and fantasy, not everything Rohrwacher is trying to say is clear. Obviously, the exploitation issue stand out most prominently and works the best, but Lazzaro himself is a blank slate in that he doesn’t really do much and represents an ideal or a cipher than a real character.

Easily discernible is his purpose as a barometer the actions of others are judged by but he offers no obvious counter to inspire them to correct their ways, Antonia the nearest exception. How we decipher what Lazzaro’s happiness is will also vary – is it from him not being corrupted by devious and manipulative intent, or that he doesn’t need material things the modern world offers us and just being alive is enough?

In a stunning debut, newcomer Adriano Tardiolo is truly sublime as Lazzaro, his inchoate and unspoiled talent providing requisite parallels to the inherent purity of his virtuous character. Rohrwacher’s direction echoes the neo-realist work of De Sica with modern arthouse sensibilities, staying true to the humble, pared back nature of the story.

Happy As Lazzaro is one of those films you will either get or you don’t. Those in sync with Rohrwacher will find this a profound experience, though most will likely have some urgent questions afterwards. An interesting if obtusely beguiling film nonetheless.