Centring on the exploited workforce of a remote tobacco plantation, Happy As Lazzaro, despite being set in 1990s rural Italy, has a timeless quality to it. In every shot, the fuzzy, curved frame of writer/director Alice Rochwacher’s 16mm camera is an aesthetic reminder of how this story could just as easily be set at any point of the 20th Century. Controlled by the self-centered ‘Marquises’, the labourers are a product of Stockholm syndrome – never questioning the increasingly cruel limitations the Baroness imposes on them. Little shreds of modernity are drip-fed to the audience, slowly revealing the outside world whilst keeping civilisation at an arm’s length, restricting the workers’ world inside a hermetically-sealed plot bubble.
Subtly arch, the film’s tone is channelled through its ‘happy’ and endearing main character. In a time where everyone has a passionate opinion to post online, the quiet innocence of Lazzaro provides a refreshing change of pace. The young labourer is possibly one of the purest-of-heart protagonists in recent memory. Hard-working and cherub-like, he lacks the wherewithal to say no to orders (from anyone), and dutifully carries old women upstairs, lights cigarettes, collects tobacco leaves, spills blood – all with an angelic poise and zen that people around him misinterpret as stupidity. Poor old Lazzaro isn’t even the focus of the film’s opening, where a fellow worker proposes to his spouse, Lazzaro poking his head out at the back of the party.
When our protagonist unwittingly befriends the son of the ‘Queen of Cigarettes’, light is shed on her sheltered, privileged mindset and how her manipulation stretches beyond the workforce to her family. In fact, the most powerful element of Rohrwacher’s script is this examination of abuse and the chain of command it creates – the Baroness giving orders to the workers, and in turn, the workers giving orders to sweet Lazzaro, destined to be at the bottom. Moments of surreality pepper Lazzaro’s world, suggesting his simple existence is something more profound and, possibly, saintly – an early moment has him walking through the branches of a tobacco field whilst children peek round the leaves softly whispering his name.
For anyone familiar with the fable of Saint Lazarus, motifs of rebirth and time will come as no surprise, and without giving away too much, Rohrwacher uses the broad strokes of this tale to great effect. Lazzaro remains a constant to the changing characters/environments around him, his wide-eyed curiosity (or is it melancholy?) rigid in the face of father time. The film often associates Lazzaro with the natural world: communicating with wolves; building an alfresco kitchen; spotting edible herbs on inner-city train tracks; staring at the moon. The latter example is the most potent of these parallels, Lazzaro in-sync with a celestial body that is also reborn in cycles. Rohrwacher’s direction shares this pre-occupation with mother nature, her shots linger on the landscape capturing the serene ennui of the workforce’s rustic (and enforced) home. Much like Call Me By Your Name, the Mediterranean sun emanates from the screen, coating the audience, and giving a tangible sense of this elegant, if dilapidated, environment.
When the timeless nature of the film’s symbology collides with Lazzaro’s journey, Rohrwacher is able to make complex assertions about the cyclical nature of slavery and abuse, regularly finding the beauty in desperate situations. Thanks to Adriano Tardiolo’s bright presence as Lazzaro, the film’s questions about a tough subject matter are posed in an understated, ethereal way, rather than leaning on its inherent horror. A sensitive modern parable, Happy as Lazzaro creates the kind of cinematic experience that feels spiritual with a small ‘s’. An Italian Forrest Gump for the arthouse crowd.
Writer/Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Starring: Adriano Pardiolo, Nicoletta Brashci, Daria Pascal Attolini, Luca Chikovani
Release Date: 5th April