Happy as Lazzaro
Picture the sweetest child you’ve ever met. And the most generous person you know. And then conjure up the most innocent face you can imagine. Now that you’re thinking of all that, let me introduce you to Lazzaro. Lazzaro is purely good – and this quality takes him on the most unbelievable adventure.
Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) – directed and written by Alice Rohrwacher (The Wonders) – begins in the small Italian village of Inviolata, tucked far away from the cities by surrounding rocky cliffs. Here, there lives a group of hardworking sharecroppers, who guard against nearby wolves in order to grow tobacco, raise farm animals, and try to eke as much joy out of their existence as they can muster. Their homes are overcrowded, their teenagers are underfed, and their local noblewoman, the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi, Life is Beautiful) is not only working them to the bone, but hiding a big secret from them.
Everyone seems to take out their own sorrows by exploiting the person smaller, weaker, or poorer than they are. The wealthy Marchesa snips at her son Tancredi (newcomer Luca Chikovani) and exploits her laborers. Tancredi bosses around the villagers. The villagers poke fun at their teenagers. The teenagers dupe and prank the children. And they all order around the young man Lazzaro (newcomer Adriano Tardiolo), never giving him a moment’s peace.
But the cycle stops with Lazzaro. He fetches, carries, gives, offers, never complains, and never picks on anybody smaller than him. Not mindlessly, but earnestly. (I recognized and warmed to how quickly he offered assistance and complied with requests. It reminded me of how my Dad taught us to be cheerful and helpful when we were children, which he always modeled for us, sometimes even literally hopping to his feet to perform a duty for my mom!) The others in the village treat Lazzaro as though he is intellectually different, although this is never explicitly addressed. Ultimately, Lazzaro’s role in this fable is to be impossibly, mythically, and incomprehensibly good.
I laughed, gasped, groaned, and clutched at my armrest during the viewing (in fact, the whole theatre – full of press and industry folks I might add – gasped in unison during one scene). It made my brain work to connect the dots at every turn, and left me sitting with some ideas I think I’ll be pondering for a long while to come.
It’s hard for me to spell out the best parts of the film because watching the whole thing felt like listening to a seamless symphony or viewing a masterful painting: every part connects to everything else! My favorite element was Rohrwacher’s slow-building script, which patiently offered a setting, character building, and even plot, before twisting off into a shocking final act that pushed me farther than most movies will dare to take viewers on the exploration of an idea: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be good, or evil? What are the greatest terrors in our world? Maybe wolves are not the greatest dangers humanity has to face. Maybe the greatest danger lies in one another.
This powerful script, combined with perfectly accented music, thoughtful and measured direction, and a stellar cast of both veterans and newcomers, makes for an engaging, unforgettable story that lies somewhere between fairy tale and dystopia.