Happy As Lazzaro

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Happy As Lazzaro
"Newcomer Tardiolo is splendid in the lead." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

It's a simple system, the marchesa (Nicoletta Braschi) explains. She exploits the peasants who work on her tobacco farm and they, in turn, exploit Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo). But who does Lazzaro exploit? She refuses to entertain the possibility that he exploits nobody. That just doesn't gel with her understanding of how the world works.

For the first 40 minutes or so of this film, the marchesa's wardrobe and the playing of electronic music are the only clues we have that we are in the 1980s and not the 1780s. In this remote part of Italy, in the appropriately named village of Inviolata, little has changed. The idyllic beauty of the fields masks a life of endless toil, especially for Lazzaro, who is constantly being called upon to undertake some new task, treated as everybody's slave, yet who never offers the least hint of resistance and shows few signs of dissatisfaction. He simply doesn't know anything else.

Copy picture

Ignorance is the key here. The villagers are kept by the marchesa as her indentured servants; they laugh when a stranger suggests that they don't belong to her and that their children have a right to go to school. School is for the rich. That's how it has always been. And they are content with this - they have learned how to find a kind of peace that shield's them from life's hardships. Something that, when confronted with modernity, they will struggle to recover.

Playing out on grainy 16mm that gives everything a beguilingly old fashioned appearance, Happy As Lazzaro is a magical realist fable split in two by an incident that borders on the impossible, on the world of dreams, and makes the villagers see its unassuming hero in a new way. Though he is passive throughout, gazing blankly at those around him, he doesn't come across as simple so much as focused on something that others can't see. Is he a saint? One thinks of Frank in Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life, or of Werner Herzog's Stroszek. A story about a saint and a wolf encourages such conjecture after Lazzaro forms a mystical bond with such an animal, as does a curious episode in a church - but is there any room for a person like this in the modern world?

Newcomer Tardiolo is splendid in the lead and Alice Rohrwacher's patient approach gives the viewer plenty of time to explore the landscapes through which we travel, inviting awkward questions about what it means to be free or to be saved. This is a world in which characters hold on to what they can, but there can be no going back to a state of innocence.

Reviewed on: 28 Dec 2019
Share this with others on...
A young nobleman asks a peasant to help fake his own kidnapping.


Search database: