Written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher
Lazzaro! Lazarro! Lazzaro. Lazarro!
Like Cinderella, Lazarro’s name is not uttered without a command to follow: carry your grandmother to the table, watch out for the wolf, unload this truck. Kindness, to cruel eyes, is cause for exploitation, and unfortunately, Lazarro’s the kindest there is, the honesty of his open face only surpassed by the white shirt he dons every day as he toils as a farmhand on a tobacco plantation.
But those bossing him around are exploited too. Cut off from the world since a flood washed away their society-connecting bridge in the 70s, Lazarro’s been part of a group of sharecroppers working on estate Inviolata owned by marchioness Alfonsina de Luna, who has essentially enslaved and trapped her workforce in place and time. Watching from the high tower of her mansion, she has no qualms about the arrangement. She exploits them, they exploit Lazarro, and so turns the natural order of the world, abuse always flowing downwards, like gravity. What a world to imagine, and thankfully there’s Lazarro’s to prove her wrong. But will the world allow for someone like Lazarro to continue being a backstop to the cycle of abuse?
Happy as Lazarro reads like a modern take on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, with its depictions of innocent naivete and tar-hearted corruption. Lazarro, meek and pure, can’t help being who he is, trusting, sacrificing and at others’ disposal. Similarly entrenched at the other end of this behavioral spectrum are those that surround him, people who never fail to take Lazarro for granted as they try and exploit their way through life. They mistrust others, because it’s in their nature to swindle; they’re shameless, because they feel beholden to no one. They’ll be that way forever, regardless of what happens to them, for better or worse.
For all of its runtime, Happy as Lazarro shows innocence beset by deceit and pain. It’s a keen critique of our entrenched dog-eat-dog culture, but Rohrwacher is no cynic, dispelling the gloom when it’s at its darkest with sudden flashes of wonder that reach beyond the dire financial hardships of the present to instead point to the value of human character and its everlasting reward. What’s in our hearts is forever, and while hardship may hide it from us, it can be rediscovered and nurtured.
Someone like Lazarro, this happy fool, feels impossible, and Happy as Lazarro is a vulnerable film because of it, starting with a vibrant initial rhythm that soon cools to estranged displacement as Lazarro is dropped into a world wholly unfit for him and forced to live on the fringes to survive, and even then only by the grace of the few still in possession of it. Every unexpected humane act feels so much greater, every misfortune that much closer, and to watch is to want to cup Happy as Lazarro in one’s hands and clasp it tightly to one’s chest.
Happy as Lazarro is inspirational despite it all. I think many, me included, are jaded to a point where we pity Lazarro, even as we cherish him. We pity him for being blind to the many knives that hang above his head, blind to people’s duplicity, and blind to self-interest and sense for preservation. Yet, we wouldn’t love him if he didn’t possess those traits. The same is true of Happy as Lazarro, which despite its almost nihilistic downwards spiralling still enchants because it knows one small kindness can save a soul from dejection.
I’ve neglected to comment on a lot of what’s gone into Happy as Lazarro, be it Rohrwacher’s tender but stolid direction, the mysticism of the script, Adriano Tardolo’s central turn, or Alba Rohrwacher’s humanity-redeeming performance as Antonia, because the heart of Rohrwacher’s compassionate and incisive film is too great to look beyond. Great as these separate elements may be, they can’t outshine the light that Rohrwacher has managed to stoke.