One of the true standouts of the Cannes main festival competition this year, Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro Felice (translated, somewhat awkwardly, as Happy as Lazzaro) is an escalating parable, a film that starts in a somewhat realist vein and then gradually becomes more unreal, gathering symbolic force along the way. The danger with this sort of approach is that we can get too attached to the characters and story early on, which can make the later turn toward metaphor feel like a contrivance, or even a betrayal. Rohrwacher avoids this thanks to her delicate handling of tone. Her effort builds on the work of Italian forebears such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Taviani brothers, filmmakers who mixed a timeless, elemental lyricism with a ruthless moral vision.
Still, nothing about Rohrwacher’s film feels like a retread or throwback. Lazzaro Felice is something truly new. It begins on an Italian farm that’s being worked by sharecropping peasants, a setting common to pastoral Italian classics like 1900 and Tree of the Wooden Clogs, with generations living on top of one another, bonded to the land. But Rohrwacher’s story is not set in the distant past. One day, the landowner shows up, a posh tobacco queen with a bratty, perpetually bored adult son. These farmers, we realize, are slaves; they couldn’t leave the plantation even if they wanted to. They’re kept in perpetual penury by the ruthlessly creative bookkeeping of their overlord.
Amid the peasants, Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a special case. A kind of innocent whose understanding of the world is simple and generous, he is used by the others for his strength and perseverance. You might say he’s being exploited by the peasants in a way not dissimilar to the way they’re being exploited by the landowner. One night, when Lazzaro develops a severe fever, there’s no bed available for him; many of his fellow peasants scoff at the very idea that Lazzaro should have a proper place to sleep.
As played by Tardiolo, Lazzaro is never quite ethereal or angelic — he’s not exactly a holy fool. Lazzaro’s symbolic value and his human-ness are not at odds, and his goodness is recognizable because it feels rooted in character. (We see a flashback to his childhood, an enigmatic glimpse of young Lazarro lost amid the tobacco fields.) His impulses feel familiar. It’s not hard to imagine, watching, that any of us could have been Lazzaro under some circumstances. Or that we were, once.
The fabulist turns of the story eventually expand upon the power relationships evident in the first half of the film, building into a portrait of a society founded at every level on exploitation — of workers, immigrants, consumers, the poor, the gullible, the unfortunate. And in the thick of it all stands the figure of Lazzaro, whose growing bafflement at the world and increasingly futile attempts to do the right thing lead to further and further heartbreak.
Lazzaro Felice has genuine sweep and grandeur, and Rohrwacher’s most impressive feat here might be her ability to find just the right narrative and emotional distance for each section of the story, as it moves from rustic drama to picaresque journey to more pointed social allegory; we’re always given just enough information to understand and appreciate the characters’ interactions and motivations.
But simple need not mean simplistic. For all the metaphoric power of her film, Rohrwacher always complicates what she shows us: Lazzaro is a force of unrestrained goodness, but he finds himself walking down some tricky, unlikely paths. Some of the more detestable characters become victims, some of the more likable ones turn cruel. Rohrwacher paints a portrait of a society where people’s understanding of right and wrong is forever changing, where being a truly good human is an impossibility not because the world is evil but because each person’s world is different.
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