“Lazzaro, are you staring into the void?” That question, which happens to be the first line in Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, could well serve as a caption to the photo on the cover of the new issue of Film Comment. The beatific face staring out at us and far beyond (and selected from over a thousand others vying for the title role in Rohrwacher’s third narrative feature) belongs to Adriano Tardiolo, an economics student making his acting debut as a simple-minded worker on a tobacco farm somewhere—and some time—in rural Italy.
Only gradually does Rohrwacher let on that landowner Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), who’s running the farm as her own private fiefdom, has so successfully isolated her sharecroppers that they remain unaware that her feudalistic rule has been illegal in Italy for years. While the workers grumble that their ever-mounting debt keeps them enslaved to the marchesa, Lazzaro aims only to please. Everyone around him, whether cruel or kind, is a potential friend. And then, about halfway through the film, he’s yanked from the narrative.
When he returns, several years have passed, though he himself hasn’t aged a day. He wanders through a vaguely contemporary present toward an indeterminable city in search of old friends, merging briefly into a flow of refugees presumably from war-ravaged Syria and witnessing teams of desperate workers underbid each other for menial day jobs. In short—and Rohrwacher is far from subtle about this—our late capitalist moment is as harsh as, or perhaps even worse than feudalism. The marchesa could at least be despised in the flesh, whereas the seat of true power—whose servants, the police, are interestingly enough portrayed as a benevolent force in both halves of the film—remains unseen until the final moments of Happy as Lazzaro.
As Manuel Yáñez-Murillo puts it in his Film Comment cover story, “past and present blur together in Rohrwacher’s vision of an Italy in stasis—a land where the incessant cycle of dispossession is fueled by the dogmas of faith and profit.” But in the new issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Gina Telaroli notes that the “grim nature of the plot doesn’t extend to the filmmaking, which is surprisingly elegant and, with her use of 16 mm (lensed by Hélène Louvart, who has shot each of Rohrwacher’s three features), soft to the touch.” Telaroli also observes that the “rules of the film, of time, are never quite clear but Rohrwacher uses other instincts to carefully tie the film together, giving it a special coherence, one based on cinema, on the progression of light and texture and landscape, instead of traditional narrative logic.”