SLIGHT SPOILER WARNING
Alice Rohrwacher has proved herself as something of a Cannes favourite in recent years. In 2014, her gently furious pastoral fable The Wonders nabbed her the Grand Prix and, this year, her latest, Happy as Lazzaro, netted her a Best Screenplay award. The accolade is well deserved, Happy as Lazzaro’s script being intelligent and empathetic and quite unlike anything else you’ll see this year, capable of head-spinning surprises and narrative coups. It’s best going in blind, as this is absolutely not the film you expect, nor the one it makes itself out to be in its first 20 minutes.
I struggled to love The Wonders, and Happy as Lazzaro’s opening had me nervous that it would be more of the same hyper-realistic Italian peasant misery, but it soon proves itself a far more off the wall proposition. The eponymous Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), an honest-faced innocent, lives in the isolated tobacco farming village of Inviolata, where his good nature is affectionately abused by the other labourers. It’s hard to place the time in which Inviolata exists – feudalism seems to be the primary social structure and technology in the village is minimal, but the landowner’s son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) swans about with a mobile phone, looking like a punk rock king from the future.
Rohrwacher establishes a profoundly atmospheric sense of place, and the sweeping vistas of the surrounding countryside are jaw-droppingly beautiful, but Happy as Lazzaro doesn’t reveal its hand until about the halfway mark. Falling ill with a fever, Lazzaro passes out in the wilderness in a shocking scene that twists the whole film into a wonderful magic-realism piece. Having not aged a day or seemingly been harmed at all, Lazzaro awakes 20 years in the future to his village long abandoned and the grand house being ransacked. It’s a reveal that widens your eyes and sends a jolt down your spine.
The transition from rural to urban Italy, as Lazzaro makes his unassuming way to the city, is a stark one, the dreamy cinematography and mellow colours giving way to more clear-eyed greys. Though it might seem a visual downgrade, the electric energy it gives the story is more than a fair payoff. Magic realism is an underexplored cinematic genre, and Rohrwacher’s story is endlessly fascinating. Answers to its questions snap in and out of focus and, as an allegory for the decline of Italy and its institutions, it will take some time to fully unpack.
Tardiolo’s wide eyes guide us through his surreal journey and though his portrayal of sweet-heartedness might occasionally dip into naïve simpleton territory, it’s a remarkable debut film performance. Rohrwacher is already established as a brilliant director for non-actors, and she further cements her credentials here with a superb cast made up of a litany of first-timers, as well as her sister and frequent collaborator Alba. This consistently feels like a living, breathing world, even as supernatural or divine energy influences it and, if you’re happy to be left with some unsolved mysteries, it’s one well worth investing in.