Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Stars: Adriano Tardiolo, Alba Rohrwacher, Luca Chikovani
This review contains some mild spoilers. I’ve tried to keep it vague, but I really couldn’t help it if we’re to talk about the movie in any meaningful way.
There’s a flavour of 70’s Italian rebel Pasolini about Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy As Lazzaro; a singularly bizarre new film which takes on themes of class, religious exaltation, homelessness and exploitation, all with a decaying magic-hour glow.
Fluffy haired and cherub faced, Adriano Tardiolo plays Lazzaro, a worker on a tobacco farm. He is completely guileless; a young angel, mutely compliant to every demand made of him by his penniless family, who take advantage of his idiot-like amiability. These peasants work for nothing, owing an incalculable debt to the local landowners who are personified by listless young beauty Tancredi De Luna (Luca Chikovani). Tancredi, who stalks around in a pair of seemingly incongruous skinny jeans, takes a liking to Lazzaro, and the two become ‘brothers’… That is until Lazzaro accidentally slips and falls off a cliff.
Now, I’m not normally one to be cowed by slow or ambling cinema, but getting to this point in the narrative takes some effort of will. Though there are some pleasant chuckles to be had in the opening act of Rohrwacher’s film, and a subtle queerness to the above relationship, her listless tempo comes to grate quickly, even if it turns out to be something of a dramatic southpaw. What follows is more interesting, if only for its strangeness; a threadbare odyssey with the feel of pure allegory. Miracles and coincidences are abound in Happy As Lazzaro. We journey from the timeless hillsides and crumbling farmhouses to the fringes of a city strewn with garbage. Here we encounter a community of homeless people akin to those seen in Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters. Following a plot move that recalls an M Night Shyamalan twist, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another class divide, again brought to us through the eternally passive eyes of Adriano Tardiolo.
This larger second half of the film seems weighed down somewhat by the burden of religious subtext, something underscored by Tardiolo’s dummy-Christ performance. His character is incapable of resentment, and so when reunited with figures who have once oppressed him, he can only be glad of a familiar face. It’s endearing, but also dangerously naive; something which Rohrwacher mines to her own advantage.
This can be quite trying, but even so Happy As Lazzaro confounds by presenting moments of pure, spectacular transcendence. A group of these homeless thieves wander into a church, drawn by the music. Aghast at their presence, the devout nuns shoo them all away. When the organist goes to resume his playing, he finds that the keys no longer work. Astonishingly, the music leaves the church with the homeless troupe and floats around the city after them. Rohrwacher’s comment is clear; the poor are the true holy ones and Catholicism – like the banks or the De Lunas – is just another totem of hypocrisy. Pasolini stirs.
The end of the film sees another tragedy befall Tardiolo’s character still known as Lazzaro, only this time there appears to be no regenerative miracle in the offering, only the suggestion of transubstantiation. A wolf (a recurring motif in the film) literally runs us into the end credits. As these scroll, Happy As Lazzaro feels suspended in the air, like the scorch of the sun on your eyelids on blinking. It seems likely that viewers with a theology degree will find much to discuss here.
In the main, Happy As Lazzaro is an experience as beguiling as it is confounding. Rohrwacher shoots with a grubby disregard for elegance, cramming dirty frames or pushing into darkness. This, then helicopter shots to take your breath away, or a sunset providing her characters with halos. Her film is ugly and beautiful. It lives in contradictions. Fittingly, I was able to walk out of the screening feeling both impressed and annoyed.