Savina Petkova on Alice Rohrwacher’s ‘Happy as Lazzaro’ (2018)
Too often, gullible and simple characters don’t perform well in the depicted world, placed amidst feisty narratives, which operate on power-play, violence, and competition. This tendency derives from reality, it seems — the evolutionary principle of “survival of the fittest”. In both literature and film, the affecting nature of excessiveness is an alluring and efficient way to convey moral lessons about perseverance and self-assertion. Another strategy would be to touch an audience tenderly, with candour and one-dimensional goodness, then, can become a suicide mission for an author or director in the Death of Affect Age. In the 19th century, Fyodor Dostoyevsky paved the road with his protagonist of the polyphonic novel The Idiot (1869), Prince Myshkin. His character is entirely positive, overflowing with kindness, tact, and respect — a full-blown incarnation of Christ, it seems. A similar, Christ-like figure (minus the wonders), leads Alice Rohrwacher’s new film, eponymously called Happy as Lazzaro / Lazzaro felice.
The film’s beginning is marked by a festive night in an overcrowded abode — a group of village musicians serenade a young girl, as her fiance proposes to take her away to city life. Folklore songs of love and dedication burst through the bagpipe of young Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo’s first-ever acting role) until someone orders him to put a loose hen back into the chicken coop. This switch between art and labour maps out the film’s ambiguity on the topic of realism. As days blend in one, we get to experience a neorealist take on the quotidian labour rituals of the whole 28 inhabitants of the house – all are working, women and children including. While the crop collection feels like an initiation ritual for young Lazzaro’s ripe teen-hood, the men of the house refuse to share a celebratory drink with him – included and excluded, the boy is a silent but empathetic marginal. Misunderstood in his lonely wanders, spacing-off during work, he is defined by his absence from the human world.
In the remote, closed-off village of Inviolata, poverty reigns as the peasant’s slave for the marchesa Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), aka the “Queen of Cigarettes”. Based on a true story of a local crop owner in Central Italy, the film imagines a gruesome scenario about an impossible transition from the feudal system to Modernity, and voices out contemporary concerns about slavery as well as human rights. Against this social backdrop, the marchese’s teenage son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani, a young Italian singer-songwriter) pairs up with Lazzaro, after running away from his wealth and position. Together, they hide in the village’s rubble hills, make coffee, eat grass and tree fruit, while making up a plan to blackmail the marchese and move to the city. The characters’ obsession with fleeing is fueled both by the village’s despotic regime, as well as the unreachable allure of the city. An image of the torn-off bridge that used to link Inviolata to the city road is a sad reminder of a self-inflicted prison.
Tancredi is tall, skinny, ash-blond, with his print t-shirts and jewellery, which contrasts with Lazzaro’s dark curls, strong working body, and worn-off clothes — the prince and the pauper as classic as the Mark Twain novel. They both complete each other in a quiet understanding, plotting conjunction. While being notably homoerotic, their shared sequences employ eroticism in the most tender way as a meeting of minds and common exploration of adulthood. While sexuality is not the theme of Happy as Lazzaro, the odd pairing of two same-aged boys becomes whimsical, as they converse in a mythopoetic manner about the moon and howl in dialogue with wolves in the distant forest. The wolf as a figure of intrusion in popular folklore tales, becomes a character in the film, as an animal and an allegory for Lazzaro himself. The narrator recounts a legend about the isolation of an old, misunderstood wolf, as Lazzaro’s health deteriorates, disregarded by the peasants.
There is, as the name of the protagonist suggests, a story of resurrection, which opens up the second half of the film, which takes place years later, in a world more open, but crueller. We meet the characters again, aged, deprived, troubled with poverty, resorting to crime. Amidst human weakness, the film’s saving grace is Lazzaro: an ideal good guy, who seems to be incapable of bad thoughts, let alone actions. In its visuality, the film praises Lazzaro as a saint, close-ups of his face adorned by a halo of light, lingering camera on his concerned expression. Idolisation never worked to such a charm, Adriano Tardiolo was cast from a school in Orvietto, Italy, and his authentic presence permeates the film’s consciousness as a pure being, his non-professional acting an essential component of the film’s honesty. Honesty in combining neorealism with magic realism, transforming time and space, overlapping life and dream, speaking in riddles, all of this is a rare gem film that tells a story of an absolute good with the whole spectrum of human weakness in handling it.
Just as Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s novel, Lazzaro is subjected to crimes, violence, insults, and the cruelty of a world gone wrong, yet the light in his eyes is never darkened, as a divine promise for forgiveness. Lazzaro is an absolutely positive character with honesty, devoid of any caricature or verdicts. Rohrwacher works with clay and her directorial alchemy delivers gold.
Showing in cinemas 5 April 2019