It’s easy to see why Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro picked up Cannes’ award for Best Screenplay earlier this year. The film — only her third — is a true genre hybrid: part-time travel movie, part-ghost story, and totally political, it also feels like a period film, although technically speaking, it isn’t. A twist halfway through reveals further complications: at its center is a spiritual core (hinted at in the title), out of which springs magical realist happenings reminiscent of the most influential magical realist book in history: the Bible.
Happy As Lazzaro’s religious influence extends right down to the Holy Land-look of its rural Italian landscape, and the spartan lifestyle of those who work its cracked, dry earth. Sharing a limited supply of light bulbs and austere meals of bread between them, the fifty-plus members of one extended family are the sole occupants of Inviolata, a remote village in the center of the country. Their isolation seems more than geographic, though; dressed in rustic clothes and still practicing antiquated courtship rituals, the inhabitants of Inviolata look like the subjects of a bucolic 19th-century painting — or The Tree of Wooden Clogs — sprung to life again. The grainy Super 16 film and the rounded corners of its frame seem to suggest the same history-book quality, but the cinematography’s ruse is revealed when Rohrwacher places a few tell-tale details amidst her pastoral sets. A Walkman here, a flip phone there, and we realize Happy as Lazzaro isn’t traveling as far back in time as we thought.
Nevertheless, the villagers’ rough-hewn lives are devoid of any modern trappings, their days consisting mostly of thankless work farming the land for fruit, olives, and tobacco for the local cigarette tycoon that owns the village (a scowling Marchese, played by Nicoletta Braschi). She is, in effect, their feudal overlord, although the distinction wouldn’t mean much to her tenants, all of whom are under the impression the rest of Italy pays its rent by sharecropping, too.
The Marchese justifies her great swindle as being simply part of “the chain reaction” of exploitation, a natural phenomenon that “can’t be stopped”. “I exploit them”, she says, and in turn, they exploit one of their own. She points this unlucky soul out, but by this stage in the film, we don’t need her to: we know it’s the sweetly simple Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) who is at the bottom of Inviolata’s food chain.
Wide-eyed and gently compliant, he is regarded by nearly everyone as the village simpleton, as well as their drudge: seeing him next to his slighter-built relatives, you get the sense his broad shoulders have been cultivated after years of meekly accepting all the heavy-lifting they foist on him. But Rohrwacher, her film, and one of Lazzaro’s religiously-inclined relatives (Agnese Graziani) don’t agree; they know that his total honesty and unending kindness are virtues that raise him far above his peers. That makes him an easy target for exploitation, it’s true, but it never occurs to Lazzaro to perpetuate the cycle. Within the film, only Antonia (Graziani, later Alba Rohrwacher) recognizes that unspoiled purity of the soul for what it is.
Aside from her, the closest relationship Lazzaro forms in Inviolata is with the Marchese’s sallow-faced son and heir, Tancredi (Georgian-Italian YouTuber Luca Chikovani). Sulking because his mother has dragged him to the middle of nowhere – barbarically, Inviolata doesn’t get phone signal – Tancredi devises a not-so-cunning plan: with Lazzaro as his unwitting recruit, he’ll feign his own kidnapping, pocket his mother’s ransom payment, and run away.
The Marchese’s billion lire never comes, however. What happens instead is something that alters the very fabric of the film itself; a shimmering mutation of cinematic form that occurs right before our eyes, moving Happy as Lazzaro from simple rural drama into the strange otherworldly beast it is. This shape-shifting happens so matter-of-factly that it never untethers us from what came before; indeed, although the soft, ASMR-inducing sequences of its first half give way to grimy scenes of urban poverty, street scams, and more economic exploitation (this time, of migrants), Happy as Lazzaro feels no less transcendent in its second hour than in its first.
It’s not just the peasants who move from grain to grit, either; when the camera’s palette switches from sun-bleached yellows to drab blue-greys, the large grain of the 16mm film – which at first seemed pleasantly evocative of the film’s “period” – begins to look more like camera noise, cramping every frame in a deft reflection of the clamorous congestion of the city. And Tardiolo’s divine performance gives even these earthlier scenes a sense of the heavenly. His open-faced turn as Lazzaro is something of a miracle in itself considering he’s never acted before, and that he nearly never did: when offered the part, Tardiolo’s first reaction was, apparently, to politely decline. It’s a good job he changed his mind, because it’s difficult to imagine Happy as Lazzaro with anyone else in the role. Tardiolo has obvious talent, but his performance is so remarkable chiefly because it’s entirely in tune with the film’s ethereal, folklore-esque frequency. Cinematography plays a key role here, too: Hélène Louvart’s lens frequently consults the moon as if to invoke the image of a celestial spectator, and, just as in the Brothers Grimm-style stories the children of Inviolata grow up on, Happy as Lazzaro has its own big bad wolf — the same beast who stars in the film’s final scene, a kind of anthropomorphized riff on 400 Blows’ closing shot.
In part because of this, and also because of its more outrightly biblical symbolism – including recurring shots of mountain caves and a crucifixion of sorts – the film itself feels like a fable. It’s clearly one written with Italy in mind – the Inviolata scandal is based on a real case – but international audiences will find it almost too easy to relate: with a focus on economic inequality and its bleak depiction of a world with a vacant moral center, it’s a timeless parable with near-universal applicability today. Because of Lazzaro’s redemptive presence and the film’s broader realist tone, however, you don’t feel tempted towards despondency while you’re watching it (after the credits is another story). The script’s sharp humor certainly helps in that regard, too: it would spoil the twist to cite an example, but suffice it to say Happy as Lazzaro contains plenty of dry, nonna-delivered quips.
With a thread of divine miracle woven into its realist tapestry, Happy As Lazzaro recalls the memory of another of 2018’s great movies: Hollywood titan Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Like that film, Happy As Lazzaro also features a breathtaking church scene, as well as a bold ending that may well divide viewers. More importantly, though, Happy as Lazzaro captures the same sense of transcendence as Schrader’s magnum opus. The fact that Rohrwacher, one of just three women to be nominated for Cannes’ Palme D’Or this year, has reached such equally divine heights at this early stage in her career signals a dazzling cinematic future ahead.
Happy as Lazzaro will be released via Netflix on 30 November.