Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazzaro) is a cinematic feat that spans across time and place and is rich in complexity. Winner of Best Screenplay at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and starring director Alice Rohrwacher’s sister as one of the supporting characters most instrumental for the development of the second part of the narrative, the film ambitiously tells the tale of a rural community and the ordeals its members are subjected to over the years.
Hard to box into a specific genre, Lazzaro felice is initially set in a pastoral landscape in the village L’Inviolata (the etymological irony of the name becomes apparent when we later discover that the villagers in focus are anything but “inviolable”, “uninjured”, or “unhurt” ). Scenes and images are peaceful and appealing at first sight. As the story unfolds, however, a deeper social message becomes apparent and gone is the idyll that greeted us at the beginning of the movie, when cracks are starting to show in the seemingly perfect façade. Young and hardworking Lazzaro, a kind and almost otherworldly man who displays a number of positive traits, steps forth as the innocent protagonist, ever servile and helpful towards others, with big eyes and an open face that expresses benevolence and a caring attitude. He develops an unlikely friendship with blond, ethereal-looking young nobleman Tancredi, of higher social ranking and standing and yet the two connect and draw mutual pleasure from being in each other’s company. A turn of events triggered by Lazzaro tumbling off a cliff as if pushed by a larger force, whereby he is accompanied by a silent wolf in surreal scenes where Lazzaro lies surrounded by nature in an apparently comatose state, takes us from Italian idyll to a sudden utopian/dystopian urban environment. Through powerful scenes and images the film gains complexity and with that it becomes more interesting and multifaceted as the story enters its second and final lengthy half. A scene in which we witness members of the former L’Inviolata rural community make their way on foot towards the city against the backdrop of a vast open landscape could be viewed as symbolic of physical refugee movements with people displaced, shuffling their bodies from the place they used to call home to an uncertain destination. The postmodern “hunter’s utopia” that Zygmunt Bauman talks of is useful as a metaphor by which to define Rohrwacher’s characters as they push on steadily, some of them young and able, others old and spurred on by the strength of the younger, all hunting for a new life in a new place, all uncertain of what the future holds and scraping by hand-to-mouth. Lazzaro, who everyone believes has died, reappears in a Christlike disguise, adding further surreality to the story as we learn from real news extracts referred to by the characters, how the L’Inviolata farmhands had been exploited by their former patrons or bosses, where the Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna, or in more colloquial terms “The Queen of Cigarettes”, proves the most notoriously exploitative and ruthless of them all.
The story goes from pastoral tale to refugee narrative, to an urban utopia that is in reality a dystopia and where an ageless Lazzaro reunites with his former fellow villagers, their new home a decrepit silo located next to a railway track. And all along Lazzaro is like an empty vessel seemingly without a real personality of his own, impressionable and apparently naïve (or is it saintly innocence?), supposedly shaped by new experiences coming his way although he never really seems to change that much nor does he age. Everyone else does, including the very Tancredi, found by Lazzaro during one of his urban explorations, and by now a man in his late 50’s or so it appears. In the meantime, Lazzaro defies aging in a film which itself defies normal conventions relating to time and space. Slow-moving and drawn out in its first part, Lazzaro felice is a very ambitious project that grows more interesting and engaging as the almost impossible story unfolds. The viewer is left impressed yet with the lingering task of figuring out what they had just been watching while having to recall different scenes from the movie and connecting the dots, with Lazzaro himself eventually becoming one with the wolf that is his alter ego. Rohrwacher’s film is both an intellectual achievement and a narrative masterpiece which demands the viewer’s full and undivided attention from beginning to end.