Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), the saintly, tousle-haired youth of the title, lives in the isolated hamlet of Inviolata, where he is generally treated like the village idiot. He represents the bottom rung of an already lowly social class: the people around him are sharecroppers toiling on a tobacco farm run by the tyrannical “Queen of Cigarettes”, Marchesa Alfonsino de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi).
Occasional props, including a Walkman, suggest anachronistic work practices and, sure enough, it transpires that the Marchesa has neglected to inform her serfs that sharecropping has been illegal since the 1980s. (Remarkably, this aspect of the plot was inspired by real events).
The estate’s callow scion Tancredi (Georgian YouTube star Luca Chikovani) ensnares the amiable Lazzaro in a phony kidnapping plot designed to extract money from Tancredi’s mother. Alice Rohrwacher’s script, which won at last year’s Cannes film festival, emphasises the Hegelian dynamics: Tancredi sees that the workers exploit Lazzaro just as his mother exploits the workers; his mother argues that exploitation is natural and that the workers will, in turn, exploit others.
“I exploit them,” she says. “They exploit that poor man. It’s a chain reaction that can’t be stopped.” She is correct on that point: it falls to Lazzaro to watch the chicken coop and pull up enormous cabbages.
Happy as Lazzaro, like its elusive protagonist, is dreamy, lightly comic and unfailingly nice
With a nod to the Taviani brothers and Italo Calvino, the second half of the film swerves across surreal terrain. We fast-forward some 30 years. Lazzaro, in common with his namesake, Saint Lazarus, is resurrected. Maybe?
A corrupt bank points to some kind of national allegory. French DOP Hélène Louvart’s textured Super 16mm cinematography harks back to such peasant classics as The Tree of Wooden Clogs.
Those with a low threshold for magic realism will not be amused by Rohrwacher’s third narrative feature. Although markedly less wispy than the director’s award-winning The Wonders, Happy as Lazzaro, like its elusive protagonist, is dreamy, lightly comic and unfailingly nice. Following on from Félix Maritaud’s turn in Sauvage, this is 2019’s second human variation on Au Hasard Balthazar. Who needs Dumbo?
Opens April 5th