Film Review: Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice)

Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy As Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) is a time-bending tale. The concept is great, even if the execution does not always pay off.

Lazzaro is a sweet-natured young man who is often taken advantaged of for his naivety. His life changes when he is befriended by Tancredi, the son of the Marchesa. Tancredi wanted Lazzaro’s help for a scheme…

Written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher, Happy As Lazzaro is something of a puzzle. Set in a remote Italian village, at first glance it seems this is a period film. However, slowly indicators of modernity (electricity, the music from a walkman) are introduced without comment. The film has distinct halves; at around the hour mark, the setting changes dramatically.

The first half of Happy As Lazzaro is set in the village, and concerns the actions of the Marchesa, deemed ‘Queen of Cigarettes’, her family, and the workers at her tobacco plantation. The film begins with a languid pace; it is a while before the narrative starts unfolding. The second half of the film shifts location and period completely. It is only Lazzaro who remains the same.

The title character is very endearing. A young man of few words, there is an innocent quality which distinguishes him from the other characters. Lazzaro is taken advantage of by all around him; the fellow peasants who get him to do their shifts, and Tancredi who befriends him under false pretences. Happy As Lazzaro is a film about exploitation. Rohrwacher combines various elements, with allegory turning to actuality. There are aspects of folklore and religious symbolism present, even if the message seems garbled. The situation of the peasants is altered in the second half, with them being older and living in poverty in the city. There is a bleakness to Rohrwacher’s film, perhaps suggesting that there are no opportunities for the poor besides exploitation. Even for characters as pure as Lazzaro.

Rohrwacher and cinematographer Hélène Louvart have created distinctive looks for each half of the film. The second half has an almost documentary style, with the grey colouring in stark contrast to the earthy first section. Adriano Tardiolo is perfectly cast as Lazzaro. He has an angelic appearance which suits the role immensely. Nicoletta Braschi is great as the caricature-esque Marchesa.

Happy As Lazzaro is sometimes compelling, and sometimes frustrating. Overall, Rohrwacher has created a curious film.

Happy As Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2018.

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