Happy as Lazzaro is a strange, shape shifting tale of an innocent in a fallen world. Baffling and thought-provoking, with moments of lyricism and wonder.
Happy as Lazzaro is a strange shape-shifter of a film from acclaimed Italian writer/director Alice Rohrwacher set around a premise that poses a fascinating question: what if Adam were plucked from the Garden of Eden prior to eating from the Tree of Knowledge and set down as an innocent in a fallen world?
That’s my way of framing the question, not Rohrwacher’s, but I include it here as a key to understanding the film that I came upon only in hindsight. Its meaning is not easy to unlock. Indeed, it’s one of those works that is probably best considered as a self-articulating closed system, like a poem, losing part of its intrinsic mystery, power and magic through analysis. That said, this is a review, so…
Rohrwacher’s innocent is named Lazzaro (the allusion to his Biblical namesake is significant). He is one of a few dozen peasants who work on a hugely successful tobacco farm owned by the wealthy Marchesa (Nicoletta Braschi), known as the ‘Queen of Cigarettes’.
Beatific of face and nature, Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) comes across as simple, speaking little, working hard without complaint, happy to do the bidding of others. He is completely ingenuous, questioning nothing, maintaining his good cheer as his fellow workers take advantage of him.
They, in turn, are exploited unmercifully as “sharecroppers” by the Marchesa, whose modus operandi derives from an outlawed system harking back to feudal days where the workers are paid in basic food and accommodation, the cost of which is always greater than their meagre wages.
Thus, they remain eternally indebted to her, more or less enslaved, and cut off from the outside world. The chronological setting could be any time in the 20th century or even earlier, were it not for the mobile phones used by the Marchesa and her family.
The Marchesa has no conscience, rationalising to her rebellious spoilt brat of a teenage son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), that just as she exploits her workers, they exploit Lazzaro – it is simply in the hierarchical nature of things that this be so. Tancredi’s response is left hanging in the air: “So, who does Lazzaro exploit?”
Bored with his family, Tancredi runs away, hiding out in a cave Lazzaro shows him in all innocence. The two strike up an improbable friendship of sorts, Lazzaro oblivious to the nasty cat-and-mouse games his self-proclaimed “brother” plays with him.
Soon after, a dramatic and tragic accident occurs, time skips forward to a miserable industrial setting on the edges of an unnamed city, and the realist style of the piece switches abruptly to something closer to fable, incorporating elements of myth and legend, and drawing on Christian iconography (for reasons that become apparent, there are several references to saints and martyrdom).
It would detract from the surprises in store to elaborate further on the narrative here.
Prepare to be baffled, and to leave the cinema wondering what the hell you just witnessed. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be thinking over Happy as Lazzaro for days, trying to make sense of it. There’s plenty to chew on: people’s self-limiting beliefs, ingrained social hierarchies and power structures and the exploitation and corruption that so often results, the poetic qualities and lyricism of the film – and most of all, just who or what Lazzaro represents, and how his treatment reflects on us as a society.
This is very much Festival fare, and may not make it to the local film circuit later in the year. If it sounds like your bag, catch it while you can.
Movie Website: https://www.palacefilms.com.au/happyaslazzaro/
Happy as Lazzaro screening dates (2018-19 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
Somerville: 25 Feb-3 March 2019, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 5-10 March 2019, 7.30pm
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