Magical realism in Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro

Folk tales, rural traditions and hints of magic suffuse the new film from Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, centred on a saintly innocent living on an exploitative tobacco farm.

Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice, 2018)

Magical realism is hard to pin down on screen. It’s something just brimming on the outside of the realms of possibility; that hint of the supernatural grounded in natural behaviour and landscapes. It’s “a narrative device to defamiliarise the familiar”.

In Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature, Happy as Lazzaro, the magical coincides with the mundane to make a tale so unusual, pure and timeless that it seems almost sacrilegious to see it committed to film. We bear witness to innocent Lazzaro’s journey through life on Inviolata, a tobacco farm stuck in time (the 30s? the 80s?), in which 30-plus inhabitants are being unwittingly exploited by an antiquated sharecropping scheme.

Lazzaro is a strapping twentysomething lad, played with an extraordinarily open face and endlessly calm temperament by newcomer Adriano Tardiolo. This innate goodness means that he is severely taken advantage of. He is both the errand boy and the butt of jokes that he’s too good-natured to understand or be affected by.

Watching the film, you get a growing feeling that Lazzaro, preternaturally selfless as he is, is too good to be true. His relationship with the bratty heir to the tobacco fortune, young marquis Tancredi, is evidence of this – Lazzaro follows his every command and Tancredi is more than willing to dole them out. A huge mid-film event confirms this feeling, and throws the structure of the film, and our understanding of its world, into flux.

At this point, transitionally, Antonia, one of Lazzaro’s only supporters, narrates a folktale of a wolf and a saint. The wolf is old and scavenging for food, creating destruction. The saint can talk to animals and is tasked with asking the wolf for a truce. When the hungry wolf comes upon the tired saint, he stops. Why? Because he smells the “smell of a good man”.

It’s not coincidental that Rohrwacher chooses to condense the film thematically through the shared, historical yet by definition ahistorical form of the folk tale. The river of magical realism runs through the film like the one that traps the characters in their insular Inviolata world. Farmhands whistle a chorus of breezes and conjure a gust of wind from the ether. The sound of wolves echoes throughout the film – either in characters’ heads, out of their mouths, or from beyond the valley. You can never quite tell which is which.

The animal becomes a way to convey the purity of our main characters, in both Happy as Lazzaro and Rorhwacher’s previous film, The Wonders (2014). In that film, first-born daughter (and head of the family on an under-performing Italian honey-farm) Gelsomina is, like Lazzaro, pure of heart and seemingly all-knowing. She’s wise beyond her years and seems to have a connection to the earth and its living creatures that the characters around her can’t attain.

As a beekeeper by trade, she has an affinity with bees and often brings out a party trick in which she covers her eyes and lips, then reveals a bee or two climbing out from inside her mouth. It’s an image that projects innocence, and the symbiotic relationship that should exist between humans and the land they co-inhabit with animals.

The Wonders (2014)

As we can often see in folklore tales passed down through generations, nature – its influence and its protection – is a recurrent theme. In Happy as Lazzaro and The Wonders, caves provide characters shelter, a space to bond and to support one another, and to hide from a harmful outside world. Lazzaro and Tancredi orchestrate his kidnapping from a cave at the top of the valley. Gelsomina and her family’s new lodger escape the pressures of a travelling talent show and her family’s expectations.

Plato’s ‘Myth of the Cave’ mentions prisoners born in a cave, chained facing the wall watching flickering shadows make different shapes, and learning the way the world works through them. It’s only when they can turn and see a way out from the cave that they can “break the chains and the darkness of ignorance”.

In both films, the modernisation of life off the farm is both looming and necessary. There’s something to conserve of the bucolic, familial existences both Lazzaro and Gelsomina have grown up in, demonstrated by the symbolic, magical relationships to animals in both films.

But underlying this is the need to flee harmful aspects of tradition. Lazzaro’s saintly ways are not treated in kind by a world that doesn’t treat innocence well. As Rohrwacher has said: “Just the getting by in the world of a saint [is hard]. Someone who doesn’t even know what’s Good and what’s Evil, for he thinks everything is potentially good.”

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