Happy as Lazzaro first look: Alice Rohrwacher practises magic neorealism

Alice Rohrwacher follows The Wonders with a boldly unsentimental tale of a holy innocent, an inexplicable miracle and a tyrannous aristocrat.

Geoff Andrew
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Adriano Tardiolo as Lazzaro in Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice)

Adriano Tardiolo as Lazzaro in Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice)

Those who liked Alice Rohrwacher’s second feature, The Wonders – which won the Grand Prix in Cannes in 2014 – will surely find much to enjoy in this follow-up. Again happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) demonstrates the writer-director’s ability to combine, convincingly and charmingly, an aesthetic which is firmly in the tradition of neorealism with elements of a peculiarly Italian fabulism. Indeed, while there is a genuine freshness and idiosyncrasy to her work, it is fair to say that Rohrwacher is following in the distinguished footsteps of the Taviani brothers and, even more, of Ermanno Olmi.

Indeed, for the first hour or so, the film comes across rather like an update of Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs; its portrait of the daily routine of a remote, rural community of tobacco farmers working for a rich and happily exploitative marchioness (Nicoletta Braschi) feels not so unlike an ethnological documentary, there not being much plot to speak of. The focus is on timeless, age-old rituals, so we are barely aware of when the film is actually set; only a few details (a moped, a song on the radio, the clothes of the marchioness’s rebellious teenage son Tancredi) suggest that the quotidian events we’ve been watching are fairly recent.

And not until halfway through, when a dramatic incident finally occurs, does the narrative grip tighten, and we learn that the aristocrat has been effectively keeping her workers as unpaid slaves, deliberately ignoring the fact that the old feudal shareholders system became illegal years ago. The police find out, and relocate the astonished workers in a nearby city.

Lazzaro Felice (2018)

At which point the film moves into somewhat different territory. The aforementioned incident was the apparent death in an accidental fall of Lazzaro, a teenager whose kindly, always unquestioning temperament had not only made him the frequent victim of the other peasants’ jokes and laziness but had led him to befriend the faintly supercilious Tancredi. After his fall and the relocation of his colleagues, Lazzaro – like his namesake – returns unexpectedly to life and, seeking his friend, makes his way to the city, where he is reunited with some of his former co-workers, who are now not only struggling to survive but are a decade or more older: time has passed, even though Lazzaro himself has remained unchanged…

In other words, at the centre of Rohrwacher’s film is an inexplicable miracle, and it transpires that this ageless boy now has some unusual powers. Some critics in Cannes found this switch from pure naturalism to something altogether stranger (and, for this writer at least, richer) problematic, as they did the characterisation of Lazzaro as a kind of holy innocent. Yet Rohrwacher’s positioning of the film’s more mystical elements within an otherwise rigorously realist aesthetic is bold and assured enough to enable a suspension of disbelief.

Steering clear of sentimentality (Miracle in Milan this is not), gently reminding us that the tobacco workers have simply been despatched to a different form of slavery, leavening the brew with welcome dashes of humour (Sergi López is especially amusing as a petty thief found practising his art by the constantly trusting Lazzaro), Rohrwacher also creates many moments of pure cinematic magic: the protagonist’s encounter with a wolf, and a memorably lovely scene when he steals the organ music away from a church’s coldly protective nuns. And she is helped no end by her cast (which includes her sister Alba, seen previously in The Wonders); at the film’s very heart, Adriano Tardiolo’s low-key performance as the angelic-looking Lazzaro is extraordinarily evocative of pure, almost saintly selflessness.

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