Alice Rohrwacher returns with her remarkable third film about a rural Italian community. Happy as Lazzaro sparkles with soul, enchantment and introspection – it’s no wonder that it took the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes last year.
What starts as a relatively straightforward story takes a surprising, gripping turn into a timeless tale of love and loss. Plot twists aside, the film’s enthralling characters are achievements in their own right, and Happy as Lazzaro is sure to bring new discoveries on each re-watch. At first, the wide skies and rolling hills of the isolated and curiously named ‘Inviolata’ community evoke a sense of freedom and breeziness that comes with the untouched rural life.
Yet, Inviolata’s expansiveness is ironically also a form of imprisonment – the hamlet is completely isolated and the residents know virtually nothing about the outside world. The walls here are invisible. Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna, the matriarch of the noble family who owns the land, quips, “Human beings are like animals. Set them free and they realise they are slaves.” She justifies her enterprise: the sharecroppers are decently happy toiling in the fields, occupied by its bustle and labour.
Lazzaro (newcomer Adriano Tardiolo) quickly grabs our attention with his gleaming eyes, curly hair, disarming smile and sing-song voice. He is kind and pure, almost to a fault. He also doesn’t quite seem to fit in. Others take advantage of his easy-going disposition and goodness, assigning him to unwanted tasks like fetching coffee and keeping watch for wolves at night. It is therefore not surprising when he becomes friends with the oddball Tancredi (played by Luka Chikovani), whose bleached hair and wild tendencies make him an instantly fascinating and intriguing character.
Tancredi is also a member of the noble de Luna family, but is quick to distance himself from them, choosing to live on a hill alone while attempting to stage his own “kidnap.” Amidst howling winds and gathering clouds, a disquieting unease gradually invades the film. The villagers speak of wolves, Tancredi’s mother refuses to believe that he is kidnapped, the sharecroppers have again fallen short of their financial targets and Lazzaro falls off a cliff while looking for Tancredi. Tancredi’s sister calls the Carabinieri, the military police force, to find her brother.
Without giving too much away here, circumstances in the Inviolata are much more sinister than they seem. The film develops a powerful social commentary when the backdrop unexpectedly changes; small, interpersonal injustices become magnified as larger, systemic ones, and there is a damning realisation that everyone exploits someone in society. Lazzaro’s unwavering goodness and wide-eyed innocence anchor an unjust world where the villagers live an unmoored, nomadic existence while things around them transform at dizzying speeds.
The film ruminates on the past while giving due consideration to those that fall by the wayside in today’s modernised world. Happy as Lazzaro is a charming but complex film that takes its time to unravel its mysteries, leaving plenty to think about at the end.