Happy as Lazzaro

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Happy as Lazzaro

For all of its meddling with time, Happy as Lazzaro seems to exist outside of regular temporality. The dried-out grass glows, sunlight streams in like rivers, silence is absent in favour of the chirping of cicadas and crickets. There is electricity and technology, but the clothing is anachronistic, as if it takes place in an alternate medieval era. Isolated from the rest of the world by a shallow river, the tobacco plantation known as Inviolata may as well be another planet. It isn’t until a flip phone is pulled out, with a retractable antenna for good measure, that director Alice Rohrwacher begins to slowly reveal her cards. 

Inviolata’s deceptive idyllism masks a much harsher reality. Its dilapidated farmhouses are home to dozens of sharecroppers across four generations. Food is scarce and so is money. In its opening minutes, the inhabitants argue over the single lightbulb they must share. They toil away under the eye of the ‘Queen of Cigarettes’ Marquise Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), yet no matter how hard they work, they’re told they still have debts to pay. What the Marquise has failed to tell them is that sharecropping is illegal, in fact, it was abolished in Italy in 1982.[1] These oblivious workers are effectively being held as slaves, blind to the erosion of their rights. “Human beings are like animals. Set them free and they realise they are slaves locked in their own misery,” says the Marquise. The story was inspired by a real-life scandal Rohrwacher found in a newspaper involving a group of farmers who similarly weren’t told about the law change.[2]

Rohrwacher has long been fascinated with time, influenced by her childhood spent on her family’s honey farm in the Italian countryside. “My gaze was shaped by growing up in such a country in which the temporal closeness of time is never linear.” Rohrwacher said.[3] Her films attempt to reconcile with the state of the country whose identity is constantly in flux. They tell of communities entrenched in tradition, forced to play catch up to rapid modernisation. In Corpo Celeste, that community is a Catholic church resistant to change, while The Wonders follows a family of beekeepers who look for financial escape in a reality TV competition. The coexistence of past and present is the most explicit in Happy as Lazzaro, in which families are unknowingly forced to live in the past while the world moves on without them.

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Happy as Lazzaro draws from fairy tales and folklore, but that dreamy quality is just a facade. There’s a twist in the film’s second half ‒ to spoil it would ruin the fun ‒ but there’s a reason for the biblical origins of the title character’s namesake.[4] The film won best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, and rightly so. Rohrwacher’s screenplay is full of deceptions, luring you into security before it pulls the rug out from under you.

The film has an admirer in Martin Scorsese, who saw much of Italy’s rich cinematic history in Lazzaro and signed on as an executive producer.[5] Cues are taken from Italian neorealism and magical realism, and there are echoes of Fellini and Olmi too, but Rohrwacher is no imitator ‒ she’s a singular filmmaker who weaves together something entirely more mystifying. Just as the post-war Italian neorealists found the political in the poetic, Rohrwacher ultimately wrestles with the working class lives that suffer under capitalism in her mythical folk tale. True to reality, poverty exists in cycles, and liberation from one prison does not grant immediate access to a better life. Economic despair exists both in the distant countryside and the murky outskirts of a nameless city.

The film’s eponymous teen (Adriano Tardiolo) is frequently described as having an “honest face”. His delicate features and soulful eyes are indicative of a man who acts on pure selflessness alone. Lazzaro continues Rohrwacher’s tradition of casting first-timers alongside professional actors. Tardiolo, whose shoulders the entire film rests on, is an economics student[6] who she met not on a casting call, but at a vocational school for land surveyors. It took some convincing to recruit him for the film ‒ when she asked him to be the lead, he replied “Oh no, thank you, but I have a friend who would.”[7] 

Every time Lazzaro’s name is uttered, it’s usually followed by an order. Even within Inviolata’s poverty-stricken community there exists a chain of victimisation, with Lazzaro on the bottom wearing a permanent smile. The title hails from an Italian expression that describes someone who is poor and has nothing left to lose.[8] That is to say, Lazzaro is simply happy because he is good. Lazzaro becomes an almost saint-like figure by the end, but he stands for something more human: he is the silent bystander whose rights are stolen without complaint. He faces everything with such unbridled innocence, that perhaps his kind-hearted faith in others is incorruptible. It isn’t until Lazzaro is left standing alone at night, a single tear rolling down his cheek, that such optimism is debunked. With greed and corruption keeping everyone in check, there is no place for honest faces here.

Iana Murray
Freelance Writer
April 2019


[1] Nicole Bianchi, ‘“Happy as Lazzaro” the eternal purity’, 13 May 2018, https://news.cinecitta.com/EN/en/news/112/73247/happy-as-lazzaro-the-eternal-purity.aspx

[2] Jamie Dunn, ‘Alice Rohrwacher on Happy as Lazzaro: “Poetry is politics!”, The Skinny, 19 February 2019, https://www.theskinny.co.uk/film/interviews/alice-rohrwacher-on-happy-as-lazzaro-poetry-is-politics

[3] Marshall Shaffer, ‘Interview: Alice Rohrwacher on Happy as Lazzaro and the Past in the Present Tense’, Slant Magazine, 27 November 2018, https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/interview-alice-rohrwacher-on-happy-as-lazzaro-and-glimpsing-the-past-in-the-present/

[4] Jonathan Romney, Film director Alice Rohrwacher: 'Making images is a form of faith', 31 March 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/31/alice-rohrwacher-italian-film-director-interview-happy-as-lazzaro

[5] Joshua Encinias, Alice Rohrwacher on ‘Happy as Lazzaro,’ Humanity’s Loss of Innocence, and Martin Scorsese’s Support, 1 December 2018, https://thefilmstage.com/features/alice-rohrwacher-on-happy-as-lazzaro-humanitys-loss-of-innocence-and-martin-scorseses-support/

[6] Romney

[7] Josephine Decker and David Barker, “Imagination and Reality Go Together”: Alice Rohrwacher Talks Happy as Lazarro with Josephine Decker and David Barker, 30 November 2018, https://filmmakermagazine.com/106381-imagination-and-reality-go-together-alice-rohrwacher-talks-happy-as-lazarro-with-josephine-decker-and-david-barker/#.XKDPtphKjIU

[8] Shaffer

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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