Director Alice Rohrwacher
Director Alice Rohrwacher flanked by actor Adriano Tardioli (left) and Luca Chikovani (right)
Sisters Alice Rohrwacher (left) and Alba Rohrwacher (right)
Actress Alba Rohrwacher
Writer/Director Alice Rohrwacher winning Best Screenplay award at Cannes
HAPPY AS LAZZARO (Lazzaro Felice) B
Unlike her earlier work, The Wonders (Le meraviglie) (2014), which felt so light and effortless (both shot on 16mm by French cinematographer Hélène Louvart), this is stridently manipulative and unappealing, heavily steeped in religious allegory, becoming an overly exploitive film about the evils of exploiting the poor, that becomes, sad to say, wrenchingly overdramatic and misguided, using magical realism not to suggest wonder or delight (though some apparently buy into it), but to suggest that human behavior is the same no matter what time period, as the rich will still exploit the poor in any historical era. While it may be well intentioned, it’s a major disappointment considering how well acclaimed this film has become, winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes, though Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku) (2018), which won the Palme d’Or as Best Film, has a particularly gifted screenplay, which uniquely plays into that film’s appeal, while the screenplay here is overwritten and overwrought. That was the beauty of her earlier film, as it felt so natural and authentic, actually creating a bit of magic and wonder, but this one’s hard to take and even harder to believe, suggesting, to put it simply, that we’re all saps as we’re so easily duped by false narratives about the power of the rich, somehow believing their lives are better because they have money and status, but really what separates the rich from the poor is that the rich have no moral conscience, believing it is their birthright to be rich, so lying and exploiting the poor is part of their heritage. It’s what they do for a living. With that in mind, despite the effort to indict current social ills, this is a terribly difficult film to appreciate, as inevitably the poor keep feeding into the cynical instincts of the rich, allowing themselves to continually believe the lie, even as they sink deeper into poverty. Is there no hope? Not in this film, which felt darker and more fatalistic than any Béla Tarr film. Yet this was the choice for Best Film at the Chicago Film Festival, which has never been particularly adventurous in their awards, rarely picking the best films, which are often determined by which way the wind blows at the time, choosing subject matter that feels appropriate to the times, though this is likely true of all festival juries, including Cannes, which remains a hot subject for viewers and critics alike to scrutinize at length. A word about the Rohrwacher sisters, however, as they continue to be an absolute delight, with one sister, Alice, as the writer/director, while the other sister, Alba, always appears in a leading role. They work so well together that their underlying spirit is always on the same wavelength, literally exuding commonality (in terms of themes and beliefs) and camaraderie (a loving generosity), as they feel inseparable. Usually it’s a joy to watch them work together, where everyday kindness can be elevated to supreme heights, offering a sense of triumph over the prevailing moral hypocrisy, and when Alba is onscreen there’s always a bit of magic in the air, elevating the material, and this is no different, but the screenplay that is being lauded actually constricts and suffocates the life right out of this film, where at least part of the problem is there are simply no appealing characters.
Bearing a strange similarity to Visconti’s THE LEOPARD (1963), but without all the extravagance, though striving throughout to be an Olmi film, like THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS (1978), among the best representations onscreen of a peasant class working the fields, but lacking the gravity and authenticity of his films, not to mention his command as a director, but this is, at heart, a film about the poor, as the camera continually follows them around, making them the focus of the film. Told in two parts, the past and the present, many of the characters appear in both sections, where the effects of time have revealed unalterable changes in their lives, except one selfless Christ-like figure, viewed as a saint, Lazzaro (Adriano Tardioli), a mysterious creature viewed as a simpleton, exploited by others and routinely denigrated, who is exactly the same in both time periods, not aging a bit, like Lazarus, rising from the dead, where he becomes the mirror of the evolving world around him, reflecting back to viewers an unfiltered understanding, as there isn’t an ounce of cynicism in his character, a good man who is incapable of lying or doing anything bad, as he is pure innocence at heart. People seem to swoon over this character’s presence, offering deep hidden meanings, but my guess is they are projecting their own religious values and sentiments, making him something astonishingly new, yet, haven’t goodness and innocence been around since the dawn of time? Are those characteristics remarkable enough, however, to move resolute power? Do they have the power to end the cynicism that reeks in authoritarian regimes or heavy-handed patriarchal societies that seem to enjoy wiping out any thought of social justice? In truth, it would get trounced by abusive power. End of story. So why all the hoopla about this film? Part of it is Alice Rohrwacher herself, a symbol of optimism and moral integrity, where perhaps she is being rewarded for having the audacity to challenge these age-old perceptions of social inequities, the same ones ascribed by Olmi and others, like Bertolucci’s epic 1976 drama entitled 1900, where the lower class always gets the short end of the stick. While people may be gushing at her use of magical realism, which can be extremely effective and influential, both in cinema and literary circles, but the pertinent question to be asked is whether it works here? And my contention is a resounding no. Especially the way this film ends, with no ambiguity whatsoever. It matches Dostoyevsky’s essay on The Grand Inquisitor, articulated in The Brothers Karamazov, suggesting that if Christ returned today, in today’s cynical world, that he would not be recognized, that organized religion would immediately disavow his importance and reject his message, as they’re insistent upon teaching their version of the Christ parable, with a supreme authority that remains unchallenged. They’re simply not capable of adjusting to a new living Christ.
In the opening moments, set in an Italian countryside that feels timeless, Lazzaro is utterly indistinguishable from the others, blending into the whole with complete anonymity, where these peasant sharecropping farmers are so poor that they have to move their lone lightbulb from room to room, forced to endure backbreaking work and simple pleasures, as they work in the tobacco fields all day. Lazzaro is simply one of them, used to being asked to do the heavy work, or the jobs no one else wants to do, which he does willingly, without complaint, as he’s a man of humble origins, as are they all, born into their predicament. Yet the opening scene is a musical confession of love, viewed as a special occasion, getting everyone’s spirits raised, as all get a sip of wine in a joyous tribute to the happy couple that plans to get married and leave the farm, earning a better life in the city. But before a single day passes, their spirits are dashed by the reality of the situation, as they have to ask permission of the Marchesa, the tobacco baroness (Nicoletta Braschi, wife of Roberto Benigni) who owns Inviolata, the place where they work, as they all work for her, and no one leaves until she says so, with people scoffing at the idea that will ever happen, so get used to the idea that she owns these workers, whose services belong to her, just like a slave plantation. When her chosen henchman, Nicola (Natalino Balasso), gathers them all around and tallies up the wages, each one of them is consumed by debts owed, making it impossible for any of them to leave, as the system is rooted in thievery, where they live in a collective purgatory of generational debt. As the landowner, the detestable baroness lives in a big manor, surrounded by plenty of servants, whose impulse is to exploit the workers at every opportunity (believing they in turn will exploit others), as otherwise they’d show no respect, whose mantra is “Human beings are beasts.” Along with her is a bored and perpetually unhappy teenage son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), a self-centered lout who sulks around the house all day smoking cigarettes, having bleached his hair blond, showing signs of rebellion and dissension in the ranks, but that’s only to get some attention from his unloving mother, who has little use for him. So he runs off in the fields and joins Lazzaro, pulling him away from work, sarcastically calling him a half-brother, offering him a slingshot as a gift, but then uses him in a secret plan to report his own kidnapping, hoping to extort money from his own mother. But she’s too sly to fall for it, leaving him high and dry, exactly where he was in the first place, an unloved son with a repugnant mother. But Lazzaro reveals a secret hiding place up on the mountain, away from view, which becomes Tancredi’s new residence, remaining out of sight from the others.
Tancredi’s plot inadvertently brings in the police, which exposes the Marchesa as a fraud, an aristocrat who’s been keeping her workers as unpaid slaves, ignoring the fact the old feudal shareholding system was declared illegal years ago (inspired by a real-life incident, as sharecropping was outlawed in 1980), so the police arrive and relocate the bewildered and dumbfounded workers to a nearby city, but then abandons them, literally dumping them in a parallel universe of urban sprawl that is completely unfamiliar to them, but more recognizable to viewers as the modern age, where many of them end up homeless and destitute, living by the railroad tracks, scrounging for what little food they can get, mostly surviving by petty crimes. It’s only here that Alba Rohrwacher becomes recognizable as Antonia (a former maid of the Marchesa’s played by a different actress), joining forces with Ultimo (Sergi López), the leader of this pack of misfits, where they are unabashed street hustlers, pulling any scam they can. In this strange new universe, Lazzaro arrives, exactly as he was, not having aged a bit, while the others are clearly older, but only by a decade or so. Antonia is at first dumbstruck, not knowing what to do, but she brings him along on all their heists, though openly hides their intentions, so he doesn’t grow suspicious, where he becomes one of the pack, exactly as he was before, quickly surprising them all in his own natural abilities to chip in what he can to help. It’s a bit amusing, if not absurd, as Lazzaro remains completely innocent, incapable of understanding what they’re really up to, where he becomes their moral conscience, as least for Antonia, who values his kindness and good will, not wanting to acknowledge her own failings. Incredibly, Lazzaro runs into an older Tancredi (Tommaso Ragno), more humbled now that he’s served some jail time, who’s welcomed with friendship back to the gang, some of whom he recognizes from before, making this awkward and bizarre, as he doesn’t understand Lazzaro’s strange and mysterious transformation either. However his sarcastic nature is still intact, loving to play jokes on people, still conveying an air of aristocracy, as if the class system is still in effect, so they see him as he was before, even as he may be as downtrodden as they are, but he hides it well. It’s inconceivable for Lazzaro to view Tancredi as connected with anything villainous, picking up right where they left off, as half-brothers, only seeing the best in everyone, where wickedness simply doesn’t exist. This gets a bit silly and uncomfortable after a while, as truth is continually overlooked, cloaked in the flowery language of the aristocracy, which is cynical at heart, using lies and deception, pretending friendly motives when all they want is to take as much as they can get, and once they have no further use for you, you’re expendable. The lack of any real human connection here slowly goes off the rails, as a certain ugliness creeps in, as it inevitably does, especially for the unfortunate. While they may all yearn for freedom, none of them find it, as in the end they’re all exploited, perhaps even worse than they were at the beginning when they felt like a family, as there seems to be more distance between people and less understanding, less empathy, and less love. That is, unless you believe in the unbelievable, which humans happen to call faith.