Alice Rohrwacher’s third film Happy as Lazzarowas celebrated when it premiered in Cannes last year, winning the Italian director a Best Screenplay prize. Certainly, the script is one of the more daring efforts you’ll ever see, featuring a temporal shift at the halfway point that pushes the film into the realms of fantasy and fable.
The first half was inspired by a real-life event, clipped from the headlines, when it was discovered that a land owner had been exploiting a group of sharecroppers long after this ancient law had been outlawed in Italy. Rohrwacher sets her film in Inviolata, a small village in a valley dominated by the tobacco plantation owned by Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi).
Regarded as a Holy Fool-like figure, the titular Lazzaro (angelic-looking newcomer Adriano Tardiolo) is one of the peasant folk who works the land under the Marchesa. In practice, these employees should be paid workers, with sharecropping banned. But conveniently, their ruthless employer has failed to notify them, and these isolated characters are none the wiser that they’re being exploited.
It’s not entirely techno-free; we see mobile phones and Sony Walkmans appearing sporadically. But just as she did in her last film, The Wonders, Rohrwacher captures the molasses-slow pace of rural life (even if these gadgets signify we can only be a couple of decades past at most). Then comes the halftime switch, beginning with a cliff top stumble (brilliantly, surprisingly shot) that takes us to another time, another era, as if this antiquated world has fallen into a black hole.
For the sake of being spoiler-free, any descriptions here of the film’s second half will remain deliberately vague. But suffice it to say, a seemingly timeless Lazzaro reconnects with his friends years later in an urban environment, where things haven’t exactly changed for the better. The contrast with the pastoral scenes is stark and shocking.
With the director’s actress-sister Alba Rohrwacher and Sergi López both making appearances, the casting is first-rate throughout, though the meaning of it all is somewhat opaque. It’s too often a film where it’s hard to exactly pinpoint the intentions, as fairytale and realism make for strange bedfellows. Still, Happy as Lazzarois one of the more distinct European films of the year.
Happy as Lazzaro opens on 5 April. For more details, click here.
1. Still from Happy as Lazzaro.