'Happy as Lazzaro' ('Lazzaro Felice'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Half a good movie.

Alice Rohrwacher returns to the Cannes competition with a bipartite Italian tale set in the near past and in the present.

If there is one clear takeaway from Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice), the new film from Alice Rohrwacher, it is that her work is Italian to its core, deeply anchored in the country's centuries-old culture and steeped in its customs and storytelling traditions. After the earthy Corpo Celeste and the more wispily dreamlike The Wonders, her third film tries, unsuccessfully, to contrast timeless sainthood with the recent past and the present. As such, Happy as Lazzaro feels both timeless and of the moment but, especially in its second half, can’t seem to make up its mind between being literal, allegorical, simply anecdotal or a kind of loose association of all these possibilities. Nonetheless, a Cannes Competition slot should offer this a lot of visibility on the international art house circuit.

The titular character (newcomer Adriano Tardiolo), who looks like a dark-haired angelic youth worthy of Bronzino, is considered by the people around him to be a simpleton. Lazzaro lives in Inviolata, a tiny hamlet that feels completely isolated in the hills (though Rome isn’t all that far away). The property is reigned over by the haughty Marchesa­­ Alfonsina­ de ­Luna (Nicoletta Braschi, Roberto Benigni’s better half), who has about 50 people working for her on her tobacco plantation as sharecroppers.

As the early going unfolds, it becomes clear that practically everything is done as of old, though electric light, cars and flip-phones then start to appear, and it becomes clear the story can't be set more than about three decades ago. This means that, theoretically, it has become illegal for the Marchesa to still have sharecroppers, as they should have become paid workers by that time. Indeed, her son, the wiry, peroxide-blond teen Tancredi (Georgia-born YouTube sensation Luca Chikovani), wonders how much longer Mom can keep this fact a secret from the people she so clearly exploits. (This part of the story was inspired by true events.) Tancredi has so little respect for her that he even fakes his own kidnapping, hiding out with Lazzaro and the estate's sheep on a hill and hoping she'll pay the ransom so he can move to the city and start a new life.

Whether he's just innocent, really naive and gullible or just innately good, Lazzaro goes along with every request from the sharecroppers and from the Marchesa's son, who makes him believe they could be half-brothers. In one of the several moments that finds Rohrwacher using him as a mouthpiece for exposition that feels inorganic and blunt, Tancredi notes that his mother exploits her workers, while they, in turn, exploit Lazzaro, perpetuating a never-ending cycle of exploitation.

For roughly the first hour, the film moves some very interesting elements into place as Lazzaro’s good behavior becomes the yardstick against which everyone else’s less-than-decent conduct is measured. There’s cruelty here as well as humanism, people stuck in destinies they didn’t choose for themselves, perhaps unaware that other possibilities are out there. Rohrwacher shows an assured rural touch here that recalls both the Italian films of yesteryear that looked at working-class and peasant folk as well as literary works like Italo Calvino’s classic collection Italian Folktales (in turn inspired by the work of Renaissance poet Straparola).  

(Spoilers in the following paragraph.) The film's first hour ends with Lazzaro involved in the most spectacular tumble off a cliff this side of Agusti Villaronga's Black Bread. Rohrwacher then cuts to the present, where Lazzaro — like his namesake, Saint Lazarus — seems to have risen from the dead or traveled through time or simply hasn't aged, while everyone around him has. Lazzaro seems unaware that time has passed and tries to reconnect with his supposed half-brother and the motley, makeshift clan of sharecroppers who were his substitute family. Except they've now moved to the big city — which, rather incongruously, seems to be much farther north — where refugees are exploited, banks have destroyed entire families and family fortunes, and the marginalized are practically forced to swindle people for a living or face the prospect they might die of hunger. What's Lazzaro's goodness worth in a contemporary hell such as this?

Purely on a storytelling level, the disruption in both time and place initially feels like a stroke of genius. This is something the postmodern Calvino of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler might have come up with, realizing that only narrative distortion could do justice to the complexity of the modern world. Here, it could have been used as a way to suggest how history and society have a way of moving on and evolving — not necessarily in the right direction — while something like the force of good is timeless and either poorly understood or, worse, completely unrecognized or exploited.

But as a screenwriter, Rohrwacher seems partially lost in the second part, which is occasionally funny but overall feels anecdotal and scattershot when it looks at the day-to-day of the former sharecroppers in the big city. The group, now several decades older, includes Spanish newcomer Ultimo (the always welcome Sergi Lopez) as well as Antonia (played by Agnese Graziani as a teen and Alba Rohrwacher as an adult), a former maid of the Marchesa's who is probably closest to Lazzaro in her goodness, though she, too, has had to make some ideological concessions to survive.

The main problem of Happy as Lazzaro is that it's unclear what Rohrwacher finally wants to say in part two, which combines the near-documentary realism of her first feature with the occasional flights of fancy of her second. There's a moment in which Lazzaro, Antonia and the others are thrown out of a church by a nun, for example, which results in the organ music that's being played escaping from the church. But the combination of that lyrical idea of aural magical realism, paired with the suggestion that today, even the poor are no longer welcome in church, feels more like an odd occurrence than a clear cinematic statement that's believable within the boundaries the film has set for itself. The film's politics also remain vague because the sharecroppers are worse off in the present than 30 years earlier. It's clear that Rohrwacher's film shouldn't be taken as an apologia for indentured servitude — but what is it, then, that she's trying to say by juxtaposing the two timelines?

The film gets away with a lot because it is beautifully made — again shot on 16mm by ace French DP Helene Louvart — and well acted, and because audiences will forgive not understanding every single thing in what is clearly meant as a parable or an allegory. But it feels like part two needed another couple of drafts before this was ready to go into production.

Production companies: Tempesta, Rai Cinema, Amka Films, Ad Vitam, KNM, Pola Pandora
Cast: Adriano Tardiolo, Agnese Graziani, Alba Rohrwacher, Luca Chikovani, Tommaso Ragno, Sergi Lopez, Natalino Balasso, Gala Othero Winter, David Bennent, Nicoletta Braschi
Writer-Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Producer: Carlo Cresto-Dina
Director of photography: Helene Louvart
Production designer: Emita Frigato
Costume designer: Loredana Buscemi
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Casting: Chiara Polizzi
Sales: The Match Factory
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)

In Italian
125 minutes