Happy as Lazzaro

 

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A remarkable film from Italy that invites discussion and possibly diverse views.

 
Happy as Lazzaro

Adriano Tardiolo and Luca Chikovani

  

Although Alice Rohrwacher's very first feature, 2011's Corpo Celeste, was shown at several film festivals and won awards, her second The Wonders (2014) achieved an even greater impact and now with this third feature her status is higher than ever. In Sight & Sound's latest poll of international critics, Happy as Lazzaro was placed in the top ten releases of 2018 and it is a film made with a sureness of touch and a technical mastery which goes far to explain the acclaim. However, both here and in The Wonders I am left with the feeling that, as a filmmaker who writes her own screenplays, she is not always able to communicate with real clarity the essential themes that she wishes to convey.

 

It could be that Rohrwacher is content to leave it to audiences to interpret things as they will: she herself has described Happy as Lazzaro as being 'a political fable, an unexpected fairy tale, a song about the last fifty years of our history'. These words vividly confirm both the film's ambition and its individuality and possibly indicate a wish to create an imaginative impression rather than to provide a clear-cut statement. Undoubtedly there is much to impress here. The film set in a remote Italian village starts realistically with a situation taken directly from real life. In the 1990s, a marchesa disregarded new laws by continuing to employ sharecroppers and not even paying them. That is the set-up revealed at the start of Happy as Lazzaro which introduces young Lazzaro as one of those thus exploited. In scenes that carry an echo of the cinema of Ermanno Olmi, we see him accepting his lot but unexpectedly being befriended by the marchesa's son, Tancredi, a rebellious spirit out to use underhand methods to get money out of his mother.

 

All of this is well acted (the director's sister Alba again has a leading role) and is admirably rendered (the colour photography is as before by Rohrwacher regular Hélène Louvert). Furthermore, when the character of the piece suddenly changes it is cleverly handled so that the viewer goes with it. After a fall suffered by Lazzaro, the scene shifts to Milan and to the 21st century although there is no change in Lazzaro's appearance. What now follows shows how contemporary urban life exploits people no less than what has been shown earlier and Lazzaro remains a character whom we are invited to see as a kind of holy fool and arguably the only person on screen who refuses to exploit others.

 

The casting of Adriano Tardiolo in this key role is quite perfect, but the film's last quarter becomes ever more mysterious. There's a quasi-religious sense to the film which leads to scenes in which the sound of organ music cut off in a church floats through the air instead - and this just when one is expecting everything in this parable to come into focus. Similarly, the close of the film builds on earlier references to saints and animals and has a wolf appearing in the streets of Milan. It certainly feels symbolical, but what exactly does it symbolise? Having found so much to admire in this work I felt all the more frustrated by the open nature of its concluding scenes. Others may feel exactly the opposite in that they may welcome the imaginative challenge that the film seems to offer to the viewer. Either way this is a film which confirms that Rohrwacher is not only a talented artist but one with a voice all her own.

 

Original title: Felice Lazzaro.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Adriano Tardiolo, Luca Chikovani, Tommaso Ragno, Alba Rohrwacher, Agnese Graziani, Sergi Lopez, Natalino Balasso, Nicoletta Braschi, Gala Othero Winter, Elisabetta Rocchetti, David Bennent.

 

Dir Alice Rohrwacher, Pro Carlo Cresto-Dina, Screenplay Alice Rohrwacher, Ph Hélène Louvart, Pro Des Emita Frigato, Ed Nelly Quettier, Costumes Loredana Buscemi.

 

Tempesta/Rai Cinema/Amka Films Productions/Ad Vitam Production/KNM/Pola Pandora-Modern Films.
127 mins. Italy. 2018. Rel: 5 April 2019. Cert. 12A.