Happy As Lazzaro is the third feature from Alice Rohrwacher. Her previous two films, Corpo Celeste and The Wonders, have been lo-fi cryptic, critically well received efforts that plug into her own upbringing in Umbria, but her latest takes her art to another level. Happy As Lazzaro is her biggest vision yet, while still retaining some of the early films’ folksiness. Difficult to categorise, it won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes and enticed Martin Scorsese on board as producer. You can understand Marty’s interest: few films this year will be as narratively, thematically and visually ambitious as Happy As Lazzaro.
The first hour takes a leaf from the Roberto Rossellini-Taviani Brothers Big Book Of Italian Realism. Located in a fictional rural region called Inviolata, we watch peasant farmers plough tobacco fields by day and drunkenly serenade women by night, small kitchens filled with chaos and love, tough lives lived honestly. Out of this languorous set-up, Rohrwacher focuses in on the friendship between guileless, pure-of-heart Lazzaro (a terrific Tardiolo, a kind of Italian Timothée Chalamet) and Tancredi (Chikovani), the devilish son of the local Marquise, the Queen of Cigarettes who exploits her workforce in illegal ways. The semblance of a plot emerges when Tancredi ropes Lazzaro into staging his own kidnapping to help make his own mother look ridiculous.
It’s around this point that Rohrwacher takes a sharp left-turn that will baffle and delight in equal measures. From pastoral village drama, Happy As Lazzaro becomes something else entirely, infused with both a sense of whimsy, irony and politics — if the first hour is in the key realism, we now enter the satirical, fairy-tale realm of Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini. In both halves, Rohrwacher and DP Hélène Louvart, shooting in 16mm to sharpen the rough-hewn homespun feel, give the film the feel of a fable, conjuring up textures and indelible images — a never-ending fall down a mountain, organ music being literally stolen from a cathedral — imbued with the nostalgic look of a fading photo. In every sense, Happy As Lazzaro, from its cinematic antecedents to its look and plot, is a film out of time. Which, ironically enough, makes Rohrwacher one of the most exciting European filmmakers of the present.