For the most part, Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature Happy as Lazzaro plays as yet another Italian working-class neorealist drama, this one focusing on the inhabitants of Inviolata, an isolated farming village high up in the mountains. The Italian writer-director focuses on quotidian details of these peasants’ everyday lives—daily habits, social customs, and so on—which cinematographer Hélène Louvart captures in 16mm, with a roving kino-eye that feels like it’s merely happening upon such privileged moments of existence. Even amid its generally naturalistic tenor, however, some the details in the film’s first half suggest a more mythical layer brewing underneath. Apart from the presence of the tough, imperious Marchesa Alfosina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi)—whom the residents of Inviolata refer to as the “Queen of Cigarettes” for her role as a major tobacco magnate—there’s Lazzaro himself (Adriano Tardiolo), a young peasant whose cherubic face and angelic eyes radiate saintliness. Not that that stops the Marchesa’s rebellious son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), from striking up a friendship with Lazzaro when he tries to extort money from his mother by running away and feigning a kidnapping.
Happy as Lazzaro eventually reveals itself to be the fable of a soul who is basically too good for our world—which is marked principally by self-interest, exploitation, and class resentment.
But just when you think this fake disappearance is going to become the main thrust of Happy as Lazzaro, Rohrwacher blindsides us with an unexpected plot twist. Taking a left turn into full-on magical realism, the film finds the still-youthful Lazzaro years after the events of the first half, now forced to reckon with the modern world, which proves to be no kinder to his compatriots than the “Queen of Cigarettes” was in the now-vanished Inviolata. Fittingly, the film’s second half opens with a mythical tale recounted in hushed voiceover, about a menacing wolf scared off from his countryside reign of terror after getting a whiff of a saint’s goodness. Happy as Lazzaro eventually reveals itself to be the fable of a soul who is basically too good for our world—which is marked principally by self-interest, exploitation, and class resentment. However, because Rohrwacher presents this unforgiving environment through Lazzaro’s innocent eyes, her film lacks the kind of real-world nuance that might have made it even richer. Her film is, to some extent, as simplistic in its cynical view of the world as Lazzaro himself. That, however, is not to deny the melancholic beauties contained herein—most memorably, a moment in which organ music literally wafts away from a church and follows Lazzaro and the rest of his family home. By the end, as Lazzaro’s goodness faces its most severe test, you may find yourself surprised at the film’s emotional power.
You can currently stream Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro on Netflix.