Alice Rohrwachers Happy as Lazzaro, Netflixs newest notable foreign-language release, starts as a straightforward story. Somewhere in central Italy, in a valley called Inviolata, a clan of tireless (but not joyless!) sharecroppers live, love, and labor under the strident thumb of an unforgiving marquis. Tobacco, lentils, and the like are their trade, but per an inherently unfavorable arrangement, they are always indebted to their boss. Theyve grown to feel that theyre working for almost nothing.
Which they are: exploitation reigns openly here. A young couple gets married, but is forbidden to leave Inviolata for fear of the repercussions—something of red herring, as the movie reveals. Meanwhile, an overstuffed household—three generations worth of people—is forced to share one lightbulb between them. Clothes and faces are constantly dirty.
Yet the plains radiate with exotic beauty. Theres a hot, languid air of mystery to it all. At night, you can hear wolves crying; by day, theres time for laughter, stories, flirtation.
These are the first signs of many that Rohrwacher has something nimbler, kinder, than pure miserabilism up her sleeve, which is right in line with the great, longstanding tradition of Italian neorealism—a cinematic style that favored non-professional actors over professionals and spun delicately naturalistic tales of poverty and politics. Happy as Lazzaro employs career performers, but its made with the same abundance of sympathy and curiosity—as well as with an unexpected, gobsmacking cleverness.
You in part have Lazzaro, the guileless, cherub-faced soul of the film, to thank for that. The character, played by Adriano Tardiolo, seems to come from no family in particular—and perhaps because of that, he gets bossed around by everyone else. Lazzaro, do this; Lazzaro, do that: its the refrain that gives the films opening stretch a buoyant sense of rhythm and expectation. And when they call, he abides, performing chores and labor without strain or complaint or even emotion, really; his face is a blank slate of good-naturedness.
But is Lazzaro good, or is he, as the others seem to think, simple? Its telling, and essential, that one might mistake—or even knowingly conflate—one for the other. And its equally telling, though unfortunate, that the marchesa Alfonsina de Luna—the boss, played by Nicoletta Braschi, who has come to Inviolata to oversee her workers more directly—understands Lazzaros station better than perhaps anyone else. “I exploit them,” she says, speaking of everyone else in Inviolata. “They exploit that poor man. Its a chain reaction that cant be stopped.” Her spoiled, stylish son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), disagrees. “Maybe he doesnt take advantage of anyone,” he says, almost kindly. Then Tancredi—lonely, bored, realizing that his is a position of power—starts to take advantage, too.
But thats where an unveiling of what Happy as Lazzaro is “about” must end. Rohrwachers got a shocking, surrealistic surprise up her sleeve and, suffice it to say, ignorance is bliss. Again, the marchesa is one step ahead of the rest of us. “Human beings are like animals,” she says. “Set them free, and they realize they are slaves locked in their own misery. Right now, they suffer, but they dont know.” Freedom throws this film off its axis. When I first saw it at this years New York Film Festival, I audibly gasped when the truth was revealed, as did everyone around me. The movie suddenly, tragically leaps out of tactile naturalism and into a fit of magic—and, even more unexpectedly, modern urban reality. But you go with it.
Happy as Lazzaro wouldnt work nearly as well as it does if Tardiolo, whose innate openness and goodwill start to come off as the most surreal thing in a movie full of them, didnt live up to the title. Hes the halo atop this films knotty, disheveled head. Rohrwacher—an astonishingly subtle, poised stylist, whose sense of labor is materially specific without drifting into picturesque, overly coiffed nonsense—gives that performance credibility by alerting us, almost immediately, to what makes it incredible.
Happy as Lazzaros final act is a heartbreaker, but not in the straightforward sense. Its a film about a living saint, and its willingness to explore the concept literally is as welcome as it is disconcerting. It isnt a new idea in the abstract, but Rohrwacher makes it feel new. Her film finds the grace in capital; rather, it amply demonstrates what it might take for grace to survive. The answer, as it happens, is magic—something Happy as Lazzaro has in spades.
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