Happy As Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice) (2018)

ALICE ROHRWACHER

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.  Italy/Switzerland/France/Germany, 2018.  Tempesta, Amka Films Productions, Ad Vitam Production, Pola Pandora Filmproduktions, Rai Cinema, RSI-Radiotelevisione Svizzera, Arte France, Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo, Centre National de la Cinématographie, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Regione Lazio, Office Fédéral de la Culture, Fonds Eurimages du Conseil de l’Europe.  Screenplay by Alice Rohrwacher.  Cinematography by Helene Louvart.  Produced by Carlo Cresto-Dina, Gregory Gajos, Arthur Hallereau, Alexandra Henochsberg, Pierre-François Piet, Tiziana Soudani, Michael WeberProduction Design by Emita Frigato.  Costume Design by Loredana Buscemi.  Film Editing by Nelly Quettier.  Cannes Film Festival 2018.

A village of peasants working tobacco fields under the thumb of a cold Marquise (played by a perfectly cast Nicoletta Braschi) live a life of toil and struggle that seems straight out of Ermanno Olmi’s Tree of Wooden Clogs.  The details slowly unveiled in each scene reveal them to be living in the present day and, most horrifying, in a place so cut off from the outside world that they are unaware has outlawed the kind of exploitation that they are suffering (this aspect of the story is actually based on a real-life case).  Among the labourers is the sweet and open-faced Lazzaro, who questions nothing that is asked of him and comes across as a kind of saintly innocent straight out of Bresson, always obedient to what his fellow workers ask of him and striking up a friendship with the Marquise’s rebellious young son without noticing the class gulf that separates them.  A magically intense experience that Lazzaro suffers in the middle of the film then brings the narrative to its second half, where the years have passed and the workers have been set free, while Lazzaro, in this gentle fable’s touch of mystery, hasn’t aged a day.  He catches up with his old friends in the big city, where they are living a free life that isn’t much better in quality, still suffering the squalor of poverty while his former aristocratic friend is existing in his own ruin and disgrace.  Director Alice Rohrwacher’s modern day fairy tale is directed with such beauty and candor that the obvious symbolism and callbacks to earlier films don’t read as pretentious or tired, being sunk into the visual poetry of her world is a compelling and satisfying experience.  It’s a shame, though, that her tale of the urban destruction of rural life doesn’t find enough to do in its final scenes other than some simplistic jabs at the Catholic church before a dissatisfying and incomplete ending that reduces a complex and mysterious narrative to finger pointing at “Society”.  Rohrwacher is a filmmaker with a truly original vision and the film should be seen, but don’t be surprised if the conclusion ruins the experience for you.

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