Film Review | Happy As Lazzaro: An insidious happiness

Alice Rohrwacher’s dissection of capitalist injustice is a cutting but strangely magical fable that resonates with deep righteousness

While offering an unflinching and deeply upsetting gaze into the unequal power structures of capitalism both past and present, Happy as Lazzaro also manages to be a rich and rewarding fable
While offering an unflinching and deeply upsetting gaze into the unequal power structures of capitalism both past and present, Happy as Lazzaro also manages to be a rich and rewarding fable

Wrongly attributed to the Buddha, the adage that “pain is inevitable, but suffering optional” is a truism that does very much apply to the impossibly unfazed eponymous protagonist of Alice Rohrwacher’s Cannes-touted Italian drama Lazzaro Felice (‘Happy as Lazzaro’).

Played with an impressively placid consistency by newcomer Adriano Tardiolo, who veers on the right side of both creepy and angelic while skewing towards both and remaining just otherwordly enough in the process, Lazzaro represents an anachronistic feat of endurance that brings to mind both the ‘Golden Hearts’ of early Lars von Trier, as well as – at a stretch – exemplary characters of quiet resistance in more recent European cinema, such as the nun-in-waiting Ida in Paweł Pawlikowski’s award-winning 2013 film of the same name, who in the end prefers the convent to the churn of the modern world.

More recent paragons of quiet suffering can also be found: perhaps most notably in Alfonso Cuaron’s award-winning, partly autobiographical Roma, which bears another connection to Rohrwacher’s third feature in its unflinching critique of hegemonic power structures and the consistent and insidious way they keep the lower echelons of society down.

Happy as Lazzaro is, however, a more sumptuous-looking and whimsical feature than all of the above, for all of its ideological clarity and righteous, though subsumed, rages. Instead of going for gritty realism, Rohrwacher – who also wrote its Cannes Festival-winning screenplay and casts her sister Alba in a spoiler-y role during the film’s second half – crafts something that more closely resembles an allegorical fable about institutional injustice across time and space.

Taking a cue from a little-known news story that broke out in Italy in the nineties, Rohrwacher introduces us to the remote – and entirely fictional – rural town of ‘Inviolata’ (cruel irony: ‘untouched’), situated somewhere in Italy and appearing to exist in a temporal limbo.
Blissfully unaware of the world outside of its confines, its denizens are made to toil for the benefit of Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), a tobacco maven known as ‘Queen of Cigarettes’.

Though they do grumble to de Luna’s foreman Nicola (Natalino Balasso) about their meagre wages, and the fact that they somehow always manage to end up in debt, the farmers continue to do the work that’s asked of them without offering any hint of resistance… largely because they remain ignorant of the fact that such a sharecropping agreement has been outlawed for some decades.

And just like the de Lunas exploit Inviolata, so Inviolata’s citizens take advantage of the young Lazzaro’s unquestioning and eager servitude. But the dynamic gains an added twist of the knife when the eldest son of the de Luna household, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) takes an interest in Lazzaro, letting him into a fantasy game where the pair are knight-errant half-brothers taking on a cruel and unjust world.

Rohrwacher’s film walks a steady tightrope of near-constant heartbreak, with the viewer primed to expect Lazzaro to suffer injustice at every turn. But instead of indulging in the cruel and often gratuitous excesses of a Von Trier, Rohrwacher plays a gentler game, weaving in humour, humanity into a storytelling tapestry rich in both archetypal allusion and realist urgency. In Italian, ‘lazzaro felice’ is an idiomatic expression used to describe anyone who appears doggedly content despite the clearly adverse conditions they find themselves in, but roughly round the half-way mark, a relationship to the Biblical Lazarus is also forged, a narrative move that solidifies what was previously whimsical into the explicitly fantastic.

Being a flight of fantasy that remains committed to its political edge, it makes for a potent cocktail, the fable-like structure allowing an uncluttered dissection of unequal power dynamics to shine through. Admirably, Rohrwacher also succeeds in championing the cause of her cast of outcasts without resorting to petty and offensive romanticism. She allows the icky Nicola – dubbed a ‘viper’ to his face by the villagers – to fall on that sword instead.

Totting up their contributions to the de Lunas, he begins to wax lyrical about how their food and drink is so much richer and more pure than the diluted stuff they now get in the city.

That they should feel honoured to be so ‘pure’ themselves.

But his mood quickly shifts as he returns to his account book, and continues to perpetuate ‘the great swindle’.

The verdict

While offering an unflinching and deeply upsetting gaze into the unequal power structures of capitalism both past and present, Happy as Lazzaro also manages to be a rich and rewarding fable, limned with a magical glow that keeps cynicism and hopelessness at bay. Mixing in a team of first-time actors and non-professionals with established names, Alice Rohrwacher creates something of a minor miracle, which is likely to remain resonant for years to come.

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