Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy As Lazzaro is vivid folklore

Rohrwacher’s films are suspended in the space where fable and fantasy meet the material world.

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Alice Rohrwacher’s films are suspended in the space where fable and fantasy meet the material world. This sounds like a long-winded way of avoiding the term “magic realism”, but that wouldn’t be quite right either. It’s more that the folkloric elements of her work are fortified when they come into contact with reality, like a dream that grows more vivid in the morning light. Happy as Lazzaro, her third picture, is set on a tobacco plantation in a valley in central Italy, where tireless labourers are employed as sharecroppers. Every few weeks an obnoxious man turns up to thumb through the ledger, announcing once more that the news is bad and that there will be no profits. The workers struggle on with their back-breaking tasks, resigned to having toiled unpaid for yet another month.

One of their number, Lazzaro, seems beyond such concerns. As played by the newcomer Adriano Tardiolo, he has pink cheeks and credulous eyes; he’s like a ventriloquist dummy that turned out cute instead of creepy. Lazzaro is a conscientious worker but he’s away with the fairies. Noticing him standing immobile, one child nudges another. “Lazzaro’s staring into the void again,” she says. “Go and shake him.”

The film appears initially to be set in some distant past, until contradictory evidence starts to accumulate: lightbulbs, a Walkman, a primitive mobile phone and a car in which the farm’s owner, the Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), is chauffeured along with her son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), a skinny, bottle-blond peacock of a boy. The encroachment of modernity on ancient customs feels humorously anachronistic, as if the peasants in The Tree of Wooden Clogs had been shown to be wearing New Balance all along.

This is the land that time forgot, with the workers effectively imprisoned by the Marchesa. “Aren’t you afraid that they’ll find out the truth?” Tancredi asks her. He is fomenting a rebellion of his own. Catching Lazzaro’s eye, he discerns in him either a kindred spirit or someone easily manipulated. They escape to the hills, where Tancredi rails against his mother: “She’s a torturer! An exploiter! You and I have to fight her like knights of old!” His plan is rather more self-serving than all that: he enlists the help of his gullible new friend in staging his own kidnapping so that the Marchesa might cough up the money to enable him to flee to the city. When the ransom note needs a signature in blood, Lazzaro slices his own finger without pause. Tancredi suggests they might even be half-brothers – his father was a bit of a womaniser, so who’s to say he didn’t ravish one of the servants? Lazzaro, who knows his place, goes misty-eyed at the suggestion.

All this accounts for only the first half of the movie. Of what unfolds from there no more should be said: the turn the picture takes places it in the bipartite tradition of Full Metal Jacket or Lost Highway, and must be experienced fresh. It is permissible, though, to say that the second section brings a different palette for the cinematographer Hélène Louvart, and a vivid performance from the director’s sister, Alba Rohrwacher. Even as Lazzaro is catapulted out of his comfort zone, he remains the fixed point around which the film turns; he’s like the extraterrestrial visitor in The Brother from Another Planet or the pith-helmeted adventurer in The Purple Rose of Cairo, their unchanging innocence casting the surroundings in a new light.

Rohrwacher handles the shifts of tone gracefully, as she did in The Wonders, which also explored the tension between a rustic idyll and the modern world. Martin Scorsese serves as an executive producer and there is an appearance by David Bennent, who made his name aged 11 in The Tin Drum, where he gave one of cinema’s eeriest performances as Oskar, the child who resists ageing by sheer force of will. There’s something of that tenacity in Lazzaro, too, though put to whimsical not sinister use. He comes to seem like a metaphor for the ways in which the exploitation of vulnerable people, and the indignities of class, are refreshed with each generation, or merely hard-wired into the human character. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers