Thursday, December 6, 2018

Movie Review: Happy as Lazzaro

Happy as Lazzaro **** / *****
Directed by: Alice Rohrwacher.
Written by: Alice Rohrwacher.
Starring: Adriano Tardiolo (Lazzaro), Agnese Graziani (Antonia bambina), Luca Chikovani (Tancredi bambino), Alba Rohrwacher (Antonia), Sergi López (Ultimo), Natalino Balasso (Nicola), Tommaso Ragno (Tancredi adulto), Nicoletta Braschi (Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna), Daria Pascal Attolini (Maria Grazia adulta), Maddalena Baiocco (Stefania bambina), Giulia Caccavello (Teresa giovane), Annunziata Capretto (Natalina anziana), Davide Denci (Appuntato), Alessandro Genovesi (Maresciallo), Carlo Massimino (Pippo), Edoardo Montalto (Pippo bambino), Gala Othero Winter (Stefania), Iris Pulvano (Natalina adulta), Ettore Scarpa (Maresciallo), Pasqualina Scuncia (Suora), Carlo Tarmati (Carletto).
Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is one of those tricky films that as soon as it ends, you want to go back to the start and watch it again – trying to unpack its layers, and just what exactly it does (in this way, while it’s a shame it isn’t much of a theatrical release, it’s okay that it’s on Netflix, so you can do just that – as I did). The film starts as a throwback of sorts to the Italian films of a few decades ago (a little Bertolucci or Taviani or Tornatore for example), but gradually becomes something wholly unique and different. It’s a strange, confounding film in many ways – and I am still not sure if it all works, but it’s such a fascinating film to watch, you almost don’t care.
The film begins in the kind of situation that used to be common in Italian films – a portrait of sharecroppers living on the vast estate of the landowner. In this case, that landowner is the Queen of Cigarettes – who along with her family work their workers to the bone, and keep them in debt in a way that they will never be able to get out of. And yet, while this seems like a scene out of, say Bertolucci’s 1900, it’s clear that this is much more recent than that – as Tancredi – the spoiled teenage son of the landowners, is using a flip phone for example. But this sort of thing has been illegal for years now, isn’t it? Are these people essentially slaves, cut off from society, and not knowing precisely what the world off of this plantation are? Yes, it turns out.
One among the workers is Lazzaro (Adrianao Tardiolo) is kind, innocent, sweet and more than a little blank. If the landowners are exploiting all the workers, then the workers themselves are exploiting Lazzaro in the same way – taking advantage of his limited knowledge, and sweet demeanor – but caring little for him. Even when he gets sick, no one really wants to help him out. This also allows Tancredi to take advantage of Lazzaro as well – using him to stage his own kidnapping, although he isn’t really prepared for what would happen when no one in his family really wants him back – or what happens when he calls the police himself to report himself missing – and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
All of this is simply the halfway point in the film, which takes a more surreal twist at this point – we flash forward years into the future, and yet not everyone has aged (and those who have aged, don’t seem to have aged at the same rate). Lazzaro is the constant here – the same guy, facing the same exploitation wherever he happens to be. The idyllic looking plantation, which hide the horrors of exploitation, has been traded for a bleaker, grayer cityscape this time around. But the same level of poverty exists – and those who Lazzaro once knew aren’t much better off being free than they ever were, and aren’t above exploiting him. Those who were once on top have been brought low – but they cannot see why that may be, and think of themselves as victims who have lost something.
The film heads towards its inevitable conclusion – things like never were never going to end well – and the result is more than a little heavy handed, but also emotional impactful. The acting in the film is excellent – probably best of all is the pair of actresses who play Antonia – one of the few people who are kind to Lazzaro (played in the first segment by Agnese Graziani, and the second by Alba Rohrwacher – the directors sister). As Lazzaro, Adriana Tardiolo has a fascinating role. He’s not a Holy fool or a simpleton – he isn’t Peter Sellers in Being There for instance – but rather he’s just a simple and decent person, a bit slow, but decent. And this is a world in being decent doesn’t count for very much.

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