' ' Cinema Romantico: Happy as Lazzaro

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Happy as Lazzaro

In “Before Sunset”, during their never-ending conversation, Celine observes how, really, she hasn’t changed much at all over the course of her life, leading Jesse to observe that people tend to have “innate setpoints” and “nothing much that happens to us changes our disposition.” This point is born out in “Happy as Lazzaro”, set in Italy during a purposely unspecified time, suggesting neorealism with a modern bent despite a seemingly old-fashioned setting before director Alice Rohrwacher pulls a helluva fast one in the middle of her movie. This narrative flanking maneuver is less like, say, M. Night Shyamalan seeking to simply make us say “Wha?” than a method of casting the movie and, particularly, its eponymous character in a whole new light. Watching “Happy as Lazzaro” made me think of how frequently Americans dismiss their forefathers as musket bearing yokels who ate squirrel so why should anything they had to say then matter now. Perhaps, but perhaps, despite myriad social advances, we are closer in spiritual proximity to them than we would ever dare admit.

Rohrwacher does not so much see her movie through the eyes of Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a young peasant amidst a sprawling family of tobacco sharecroppers, as she sees it through the lens of constantly trying to ferret out what lies behind Lazzaro’s big white eyes. “Are you staring into the void?” Lazzaro is asked as the movie opens, a scene in which he is seen from a distance, foreshadowing how difficult it can be to fully grasp who and what he is. Other characters tease and take advantage of him but his inscrutable expressions make it difficult to parse whether he is hurt, indifferent, or just flat unaware; he might be all three or he might be none of the above. That face sort of becomes our own as “Happy as Lazzaro” proceeds. Because if the buildings and clothes suggest the film is a period piece, contradictory bits and pieces emerge, like red lights blinking in the distance, to make us wonder if we are seeing things right. Eventually, when the estate’s cruel Marchesa (Nicoletta Braschi), evocatively deemed the Queen of Cigarettes, turns up with her son, Tancredi (Tommaso Ragno), the so-called Marquis, in tow, we gain clarity.

In conversations between this mother and son we suddenly, sickeningly grasp a situation akin to Lars von Trier’s “Manderlay” in which these sharecroppers are revealed as unwitting modern slaves, the Queen keeping keeping them isolated, unaware of reality and firmly under her nicotine-stained thumb. It is Tancredi who inadvertently initiates the means to fight back, which Ragno smartly plays not from any kind of idealism but more like youthful contrarianism, concocting a rebellious ruse to vanish and then demand a ransom, enlisting Lazzaro in the scheme as his “kidnapper”. If this seems to suggest where the story will go, the story goes no such place, opting for another way entirely, foreshadowed in shots where helicopters descend on the confused villagers, the camera suddenly looking down on them from a sky, suggesting a whole new point-of-view.

That all sounds like spoilers, and it is, though it’s only half the battle. Suffice to say that “Happy as Lazzaro” enters the mythical, nigh religious, realm for its back half, flashing forward in time and switching locales. The pleasant earth tones of the film’s first half give way to coldness of the city where those innate setpoints reveal themselves in terms of class distinction, the economic prosperity and stagnation of the haves and have nots remaining virtually unchanged, merely assuming a different form, as if suggesting that our place in the world is preordained. Yet those innate setpoints also extend to Lazzaro, who through the movie’s nifty tricks of time remains unchanged too, his whatever-you-need innocence now forced to navigate a harsher landscape to which he struggles to adjust. And as he does, that inscrutable expression gradually, then suddenly, comes into focus as something approximating grace, a trait that might mark him as a savior even as he is trampled over, released from bondage of our soul-sucking, self-centered world, leaving the rest of us bound to the misery we have created.

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