Neo-realism meets magical realism - an instant classic
- Happy as Lazzaro review by PD
The first half of Alice Rohrwacher’s deliberately disturbing new film, takes place in a rugged valley somewhere in central Italy miles away from anywhere. The residents, an extended clan of sharecroppers, grow tobacco, lentils and chickpeas on land belonging to an aristocratic family. Though there are a few signs of modernity — a few electric lights, some motorised vehicles, a mobile or two (but no signal) — the feudal structure and pastoral rhythms of existence in this place seem timeless. The farmers, exploited and oppressed by an ancient social order, are sustained by their stoicism and solidarity, but Rohrwacher isn’t in the business of picturesque nostalgia or political piety. She draws from the past (tapping into literature and folklore as well as film) to forensically interrogate present conditions.
The film, a perfectly balanced combination of neo-realism and magic realism, centres around the 'happiness' of the title character (Adriano Tardiolo), a kindhearted young man of uncertain parentage. His contentment is genuine, in spite of his harsh circumstances; both simpleton and saint in the 'holy fool' tradition, he stands as an exception to the general human tale of treachery and domination. He is happy because he is good. By contrast, the noblewoman who owns the land — the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi) is brutally exploitative, whilst insisting that her power over her tenants, who are perpetually in her debt even as she appropriates the fruits of their labour, represents the natural order of things. While the workers mostly despise her, and engage in small-scale acts of resistance against her and her overseer, they are powerless to change anything: exploitation is as much part of the landscape as the trees and rocks, and a distinct change of scene half-way through the film merely leads to the replacement of one form of organised cruelty with another. For just as we’ve accepted the semi-fantastical parameters of Lazzaro’s world, notably his unlikely half-secret friendship bond with the Marchesa’s son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), our perspective suddenly changes. We suddenly see the landscape from above and hear an ancient folk tale in a woman’s voice, and the film takes a double swerve, into both a harsher realism and more explicit magic.
A rich sense of mystery pervades the film, and we find ourselves trusting the teller even when we don't fully understand the tale or know where it’s going. What makes it a great film though is the piercing clarity of Alice Rohrwacher’s vision. Even at its most fatalistic, the old cinematic neo-realism was grounded in an idea of progress, in the leftist faith that after feudal paternalism and predatory capitalism a better, more humane future could be imagined and struggled towards. The eclipse of that faith has had consequences for politics and also for narrative: if the passage of time merely led to one form of injustice being supplanted by another, the possibility of a happy ending, or an ending of any kind, seems out of reach. And to this end, the tragic final scene of “Lazzaro” is devastating but also fully convincing. An instant classic.
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Lazzaro rises above.
- Happy as Lazzaro review by RhysH
This is a beautifully shot, enigmatic film, the simplicity of the story underscored by a complex social narrative, a discourse on wealth and poverty.
The first half conjures up images of Ermanno Olmi's "The Tree of Wooden Clogs".
Adriano Tardiolo plays Lazzaro with studied ease, his face gives nothing away but it is not the face of a simpleton, as everyone around him implies, it is the face of a young man who observes the world around him and transcends its awfulness.
1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.