Happy as Lazzaro (aka Lazzaro Felice) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Happy as Lazzaro is a film that is perhaps too innocent for its own good. It’s grander theme is one of how man has lost spirituality for the more shiny yet empty ambitions of capitalism. However, in trying to make its way towards the familiar and meaningful goal, the picture meanders and stumbles around trying to find its voice.
The titular Lazzaro is posed as an ordinary young peasant, doomed to a dreary life he ambles about as a sharecropper on the farm of the sinister Marchioness Alfonsina De Luna, aka Queen of Cigarettes. He runs across the young noblemen and son of Marchioness, Tancredi, who has a proposition for him: Stage his fake kidnapping. It’s a classic move of trying to attain some ransom money and since Lazzaro and Tancredi form such a strong bond, they may just pull it off. That is if they can convince Marchioness if the kidnapping is real, a task which may be harder than it first appears. Through a series of mishaps during their stunt, Lazzaro ends up knocked out and awakening years later, when the farm has changed greatly after a police raid. Ever the honest believer, Lazzaro is tricked by some robbers to do their bidding. Elsewhere, Tancredi has become a major success but not quite the success one would expect from his family fortune.
This is the kinda Italian film that positions itself as awkward and aloof enough to float by on its surreal atmosphere, making it no surprise that it was awarded the Best Screenplay award at Cannes. Sure, its central message is quite clear, but it’s more about its artistic game of Operation that struggles never to touch the sides and set off the heavy-handed alarm. And there is something admirable about that. I kinda dug how Lazzaro is posed more as a passenger on the rickety train of capitalism rather than the formed hero who dashes towards the brakes. He’s both pitiful and sweet in this regard, posed as someone too simple to be a danger yet too dim to read the room. There’s a remarkable moment towards the end which encapsulates how un-hero this character truly is, rushing into a situation that would make him a rebel and going horribly, horribly wrong.
Yet there’s a whole lot more to this story that never feels as fully realized. The corruption of agriculture making way for a new wave of the same. The uneasy shifting from the traditional to the modern. The violent desperation of wealth that can turn the working class into pulp. All of these aspects are unique and yet they’re only given a mild glaze upon a mostly lukewarm vibe of a picture. We only feel so much for Lazzaro as we do our selves in such a context, mostly divorced from his blankness in his motivations.
At the very least, Happy as Lazzaro is a well-made film on a technical level. The tracking shots are absolutely astounding, the cinematography gorgeous, and even the twist is well executed. But in its attempts to avoid the overt, the film seems to become lost at times almost as much as its protagonist, milling about to find some meaning that is dangling all around. And there’s a certain madness to watching that just-out-of-grasp vibe throughout that makes Happy as Lazzaro perhaps more frustrating than it need be.