Neorealism Filtered Through A Pot Haze

‘Happy As Lazarro,’ Strange, Surprising, and Brilliant

Who are these anachronistic Italian peasants, scraping together just enough food in their antiquated hovel to celebrate a midnight marriage proposal? How about that bratty aristocratic man-child, who pranks his rich mom by running off and then sending a ransom note blotched with blood? And what’s the deal with Lazzaro, a simpleton with saucer-plate eyes and open face who everyone treats like a human mule? Like all great fables, the miraculous Happy as Lazzaro, charms and disturbs in equal measure.

An earthy yet enchanting tale about exploitation, devastation, and redemption, Alice Rohrwacher’s disorienting drama, now streaming on Netflix, seems both out-of-time and timeless. Rohrwacher shot it on 16mm film, with the camera gate’s rough edges and curved corners unmasked in an old-school 1.33 aspect ratio. The movie feels like some lost documentary from the early 1970s. There’s a hippie vibe to its poetic depiction of rural squalor and urban blight, like neorealism filtered through a pot haze. What the hell is going on? was my nagging question for the first hour. Its elision is enthralling. And then things get even weirder.

The deceptively simple story stretches years. There’s an occasional glimpse of a Walkman or a cell phone to help anchor the events in a specific era, but otherwise the film floats strangely through history, anchored only by its eternal message that a generous heart is the only way to salvation.

HAPPY AS LAZZARO ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Alice Rohrwacher
Written by: Alice Rohrwacher
Starring: Nicoletta Braschi, Adriano Tardiolo, Sergi López, Alba Rohrwacher, Luca Chikovani
Running time: 130 min.


In the first section, set at a tobacco farm called Inviolata, dozens of dirt-poor farmers in weathered, patched-up clothing eke out a meager existence. Indentured servants to Marquise Alfonsino de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), otherwise known as the “Queen of Cigarettes,” they are meek, mostly witless workhorses. And the most uncomplicated among them is Lazzaro, who takes on every ponderous, ridiculous, exhausting task with a sweet nod.

The film’s equally brutal second half suddenly shows us how some of these same characters now have to navigate life in a big city. Chafing from the cold, they scrape together their prospects however they can through a desperate mix of petty theft and canny deceit. And there stands Lazzaro throughout, the holy fool ever believing in the best of others even as they prove him wrong time and again.

The deeply strange narrative, fusing social commentary with fantasy, won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival this year. But it casts its spell through Rohrwacher’s masterful technique, using sound design, cinematography, and editing to conjure what more accurately feels like a waking dream. Surprise is a rare commodity in movies. It’s worth savoring how much Rohrwacher uses her film to embrace the unexpected.

Like the film’s Biblical namesake, Italy itself comes across as Lazarus, a country that’s sick at its core, at death’s door, needing to be brought back to life through divine intervention. That resurrection seems within grasp, but Happy as Lazzaro shows how much life remains an endless struggle. As humans, it’s in our nature to always aim for the top. Even as we race to the bottom.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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