Review: Happy as Lazzaro

by Andrew Parker

Rich in plot and subtext, Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s allegorical and twisty drama Happy as Lazzaro is an ambitious and mostly successful look at how the fears of marginalized people have rarely changed over time. It’s easy to see why Happy as Lazzaro netted Rohrwacher a screenwriting award at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year (sharing the prize with Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces). Few films this year have been more rigidly driven by their multi-layered, continually evolving, and ceaselessly referential plot than Happy as Lazzaro. It’s successful more often than not, but such detail often comes at the expense of subtlety and emotion. It reads like a great novel and has a firm grasp over time and space, but it’s as blank of an experience as its titular character in its weaker moments.

The story (or at least the first one, anyway) unfolds in the rural Italian hamlet of Inviolata, a simple, agrarian community where sharecroppers, growing primarily tobacco, toil away under the watchful and demanding eye of the wealthy Marchesa Alfonsina (Nicoletta Braschi). One of these workers is a young man named Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a generally well liked and hard working guy who’s rather shy, never says more than necessary, and is prone to bouts of “the fever,” where he’ll just stand still in a virtually catatonic state and stare off into space for long periods of time. Lazzaro strikes up an unlikely friendship with Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), a flashy looking man around the same age. They bear such a striking resemblance to one another that they (perhaps) jokingly theorize that they could be half-brothers. While clearly entitled, Tancredi has grown tired and frustrated with his mother’s greedy ways, and he asks Lazzaro to help in a potential money making scheme. Tancredi wants to fake his own kidnapping, and while Lazzaro agrees and things generally go to plan, Alfonsina flatly refuses to pay any sort of ransom or involve the authorities.

Once the authorities do get involved in Tancredi’s faux kidnapping plot, Rohrwacher (The Wonders, Corpo Celeste) turns her narrative on a genre based dime and spirals off in a completely new direction with her characters. It’s difficult to explain without spoiling anything, but it’s a pivot towards modernity that proves that Happy as Lazzaro’s period piece opening half has been in service of a frustrated and heartfelt look at how the rights of the impoverished working classes are always trampled on throughout history. The more things change for Rohrwacher’s characters, the more they stay the same. Lifestyles change undoubtedly change drastically for Lazzaro and Tancredi in the film’s second half, but the story’s shift has implications from everyone in their village. Taking inspiration in part from real life labour scandals that made Italian headlines, Happy as Lazzaro mines human suffering and injustice for a uniquely poignant religious and political allegory that reaches far beyond the stories that inspired its construction. There’s a depth to Happy as Lazzaro’s screenplay that few allegorical works – especially ones built around a restrained, yet whimsical storytelling gambit – rarely achieve.

Most of Rohrwacher’s complex storytelling is visual and unrushed at the outset. Drawing upon her skills as a documentarian, Rohrwacher acclimatizes the viewer to the rhythms and customs of daily life in Inviolata for quite some time before expressly putting any sort of plot into motion. Captured masterfully and ambitiously in 16mm by expert veteran cinematographer Hélène Louvart, Inviolata looks appropriately like a place out of time. It’s never immediately apparent from looking at the isolated townspeople exactly when Happy as Lazzaro is supposed to be taking place. It’s almost a quarter of the way into the film before certain props (flip phones, walkmans) start to provide clues as to what might be going on in the town. Once the plans of the Marchesa are made a bit more obvious, only then does Rohrwacher begin to enhance and develop her characters and their situations; all of them, really, except for Lazzaro, who isn’t so much “happy” as he is “blissfully oblivious.”

While he’s written as a sympathetic, generous, and thoughtful young man with an exceptional secret, Rohrwacher hangs so much of her sometimes overbearing allegorical beats off the character that there’s no room for personality. Although Rohrwacher has been constructing her subtext surrounding workers’ rights around a character that’s essentially “the last good man alive,” Lazzaro (whose name itself is an obvious, on-the-nose biblical allusion) remains constantly adrift throughout. Tardiolo’s performance is positively somnambulant, and while that’s mostly by design and not through the fault of the actor, Rohrwacher hasn’t even given him any intriguing or three dimensional side characters to interact with, although Alba Rohrwacher (Alice’s older sister) comes closest to a fully developed person as a helpful young woman who tries to help Lazzaro adjust to his new reality. Happy as Lazzaro might take its time to get going, offer plenty of novel plot twists, symbolism by the truckload (especially the sounds of howling wolves and winds), and didactic points about growing class divides, but it’s all at the expense of any lasting human emotion. It’s a curious choice when the subjects Rohrwacher wants to talk about so naturally evoke huge responses when people are forced to confront them.

Happy as Lazzaro tries to inject some emotional response in the late going with a much needed confrontation, which works nicely, and a closing sequence, which feels cheap and exploitative given that the rest of the film has been so devoid of feeling. I can see where Rohrwacher was trying to go with Happy as Lazzaro, and it’s frankly hard to miss it considering that the filmmaker doesn’t traffick very often in subtlety here and despite the stoic leanings of the titular character. Subtlety or not, the dexterity of Rohrwacher’s writing and directorial approach is highly commendable, and Happy as Lazzaro stands rather well as a depiction of struggling, marginalized classes in an prolonged era of capitalism running unchecked. It’s almost too stone-faced for its own good (and to a point that almost approaches self-parody by the end), but the packaging is near perfect.

Happy as Lazzaro opens exclusively at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, November 30, 2018. It’s available to stream everywhere on Netflix the same day.

Check out the trailer for Happy as Lazzaro:

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