Rohrwacher is surely one of the most exciting directors working today, delivering a truly mesmerising and thematically-dense work of art.
Dir. Alice Rohrwacher
2018 | Italy | Drama | 110 mins | 1.66:1 | Italian
PG (passed clean) for thematic elements and brief violence
Cast: Adriano Tardiolo, Agnese Graziani, Luca Chikovani, Alba Rohrwacher, Sergi López
Plot: An unceasingly kind Italian peasant and his family are blatantly exploited by a tobacco baroness.
Awards: Won Best Screenplay (Cannes)
International Sales: The Match Factory
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore International Film Festival ’18)
I was impressed by The Wonders (2014), writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s previous film, which won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize, and which screened here in Singapore at the 2015 European Union Film Festival. Naturally, I was very excited to see her new work, and boy, did it not disappoint.
One of the best films of 2018, Happy as Lazzaro sees the filmmaker at the top of her game, mounting a work of staggering depth, and one could say, of ambition. At the end of it, it is not difficult to feel a sense of satisfaction, of having learnt about humanity, the value of human worth, and a sense of community amid an overwhelming spectre of history and the weight of time.
In the spirit (one might find the use of the term here rather apt) of a neorealist work that also blends with uncommon power the spiritualism of, say, a Bresson film—something like The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) meets Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)—Happy as Lazzaro centers on the village’s ‘fool’, a simple-minded if supremely compassionate young man who helps his people toil long hours without compensation, never for once refusing anything or complaining about hard labour.
“It is the sanctity of living in this world without thinking ill of anyone and simply believing in human beings. Because another way was possible, the way of goodness, which men have always ignored but which always reappears to question them. Like something that might have been but that we’ve never ever wanted.” ~ Alice Rohrwacher
This motley bunch of villagers has been isolated from civilisation for all of their lives, governed by an elite family who owns a nearby mansion. This is the intriguing context of the film’s narrative, and it gets even better. At the risk of revealing too much, I will leave you to discover how the film plays out brilliantly if also plausibly in its own self-defined magical realist world.
The theme of exploitation is obvious and this occurs in several layers through the film, but what holds Happy as Lazzaro together is its central character, played by Adriano Tardiolo in his acting debut. He has one of the most gentle and kindest of faces you will ever see, and his smile will warm your heart amid the ugliness of human nature and the transience of human existence. He’s the literal and metaphorical constant that propels the film’s narrative and themes.
Rohrwacher’s truly mesmerising work of art is perhaps best seen as an unorthodox fable. Whether it is philosophical or allegorical doesn’t quite matter; what matters is that it is quietly transcendental and uncommonly moving.