Happy as Lazzaro confronts social realism with magical folktale elements, casting the reflection of the society and questioning the powers that hold it in place.
Watching the group of workers on Inviolata, a remote Italian farm, we follow their daily life as they take care of the crops, gossip on short breaks between their duties, and communicate like a tight-knit family. But despite the happy moments we observe, we’re quickly confronted with painful reality. When a freshly engaged couple decide to move to the city, they’re instantly stopped – they can’t leave until they get Marquesa’s permission. And when it comes to paying the workers off, the estate administrator constantly reminds them of their debt, taking away any possible income.
The film encourages the audience to make several leaps of faith, but it turns the binary parable set-up into something far more nuanced without losing the emotional resonance. By inter-lapping the present and the past, it invites us to see possibilities in the future, but it doesn’t shy away from the clear warnings about the social mechanics.
Picking the story up with the scenes that belong to feudalism, the director places it at the beginning of the twentieth century. The movie’s warm colour tinge and grain of the film only emphasise the setting – a memory of rural Italy. But there are things that don’t quite match up to what we see: there are cars and motorbikes around us, and some characters own mobile phones or Walkmans. When an unfortunate occurrence brings carabinieri to the farm, every puzzling detail comes together to unveil an explanation: the people have been kept in the past in the con pulled off by Marquesa de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi).
Alice Rohrwacher uses that notion to question the treatment of the lower classes of the society: they lack mobility because of systemic problems that kept them in place with deception and lies. “Human beings are like animals: set them free and they realise they are slaves locked in their own misery,” the Marquesa tries to justify benefitting from her exploitation. “Right now, they suffer but they don’t know it.” She points to baby-faced Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) as he picks up another ungrateful duty on her watch, trying to explain that she’s only obeying the natural laws of the food chain to stay afloat. But her son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) opposes, idealistically hoping he can escape the fate of torture and exploitation. His escape triggers a chain reaction of events. His connection to Lazzaro turns into a friendship based on common values that survives the changes brought about by the times.
The film’s ambience is rooted not only in magical shifts at its heart but also in the portrayal of the otherworldly protagonist. Lazzaro’s good-natured demeanour allows others to take advantage of him, but he doesn’t seem to see it as mistreatment. When everyone is celebrating the engagement of two fellow farm workers, there’s no drink or food left for the boy – yet, he doesn’t protest. If anyone asks him to pick up their duties, he never opposes. In the field, it’s him other servants call for when a job that nobody wants to pick up needs to get done without the smallest complaint. He never asks for things that could benefit him, but he’ll stand up for someone else in a heartbeat. Other people mistake his silence for obedience and simple-mindedness, but the boy’s idealism is a silent force for good that transforms the world around him with the tiniest of actions. Amid the darkness of the world, there’s a shred of hope: Lazzaro’s big heart saves him in the times of trouble, even if it fails to get him out of his difficult circumstances.
The director assembles metaphors and popular mythology to give her tale of oppression a magical depth, wrapping them tightly in the film’s contemplative outlook. The Catholic legends, for instance, are repurposed to hint at the situation of the workers. While preparing the mansion for Marquesa’s arrival, Antonia (Agnese Graziani) recalls Saint Agatha, a resistant martyr who endured unspeakable suffering as a price to staying faithful to her beliefs, and we can immediately tie these notions to the film’s protagonist. In a voiceover which comes a little later, Antonia recalls one of the legends attached to Saint Francis of Assisi: a story of a kind man who calmed down a wolf that terrorised the town residents. She pairs it with a careful montage of setting Inviolata free and Lazzaro’s own face-off with a wolf. The force of evil has been confronted: the workers gain personal freedom because of the chain of reactions that Lazzaro helped to provoke. But the director doesn’t stop questioning, musing about the constant good deeds needed to truly transform the society. We quickly realise that these bursts of action are rapidly forgotten by the society as exploited people move from Marquesa’s governance into the current of the society controlled by its capitalist structures. One form of oppression is swapped for the other, nothing changes for those impacted by it, some conform to the system and exploit it, while the articles about “the crisis of a social country” that occupied the front pages are read with nostalgia in the community of squatters cast away by the society as soon as they tried to enter it.
Happy as Lazzaro opens as a part of the London Film Festival, screening in the Official Competition. Its UK release date is yet to be announced.
- Happy as Lazzaro