Happy as Lazzaro was the joint winner of the script prize at Cannes this year. It’s due to arrive in the UK in the Spring of 2019, I think. I don’t usually book to see films like this which are sure to be released widely, but this screening was in the right place at the right time and the writer-director Alice Rohrwacher was present to introduce and discuss her film. Ms Rohrwacher is as entertaining a speaker as her films are life-affirming and very wonderful. There are no spoilers below but I hope I can whet your appetite for this glorious piece of film magic.
I’ve seen and enjoyed both of the director’s first two films and she appears to be most interested in characters who are in one sense ‘marginal’ but also ‘magical’ in that they attract attention, usually in a positive sense, at least for the underprivileged. Corpo Celeste (2011) focuses on a young girl who arrives back in Southern Italy after 10 years away and confronts her church and family at the time of her first communion. The Wonders (2014) also focuses on a young girl who is the most dynamic member of a group of migrant smallholders in the countryside around Viterbo in Central Italy. Happy as Lazzaro is set in the same region.
Lazzaro is a young man of 19 or 20 who lives in an isolated community – a village in the hills cut off from the world when a road bridge collapses. Around fifty people live in this isolated spot, working the land and producing cash crops for the landowner, a Marquesa known as the ‘Tobacco Queen’. Tobacco leaves and the other crops are transported to market with great difficulty every few months and life in the village goes on undisturbed. Lazzaro is almost angelic in appearance with wide open eyes and a ready smile. He will do anything for anybody and is consequently exploited by all the villagers, but he doesn’t seem to mind and since there is no wealth held by the villagers, it is only his time and energy that is used. But when the Marquesa comes to the village to stay in the crumbling villa for a few days, bringing her son Tancredi, roughly the same age as Lazzaro, the two develop an odd friendship with the naïve Lazzaro agreeing to Tancredi’s suggestions. When the ‘inciting incident’ takes place it is a long way into the narrative and, in the unusual structuring of events, this incident changes the feel and tone of the film completely.
I’m not going to spoil the narrative and I hope you can manage to see the film without any knowledge of what might happen, so that you can enjoy the full experience of what is a marvellous film. All I’ll say is that there are elements of what some might call ‘magic realism’ with the intervention of a wolf. Wolves have been ‘re-wilded’ in several parts of Europe but in Italy the original wolf population survived attempts at extermination and they now number around 500 along the ‘spine’ of the Apennines. This means that the wolf that appears could be ‘real’ or metaphorical and that’s perhaps the key to the fantastical elements in this film. In the Press Notes, Alice Rohrwacher tells us:
Lazzaro Felice is the story of a lesser sanctity, with no miracles, no powers or superpowers, without special effects. It is the sanctity of living in this world without thinking ill of anyone and simply believing in human beings. Because another way was possible, the way of goodness, which men have always ignored but which always reappears to question them. Like something that might have been but that we’ve never ever wanted.
Lazzaro is the figure of sanctity and what he eventually does is to expose exploitation and the new inequality in Italy between the urban rich and the rural poor, between those with material wealth and those without (including the migrant communities). The film doesn’t lecture us but instead initially entrances us and then reveals a harsh reality.
The film depends heavily on the central performance by the remarkable Adriano Tardiolo as Lazzaro. There seems to be a slight difference between the Press Notes and what Alice Rohrwacher told us in the Q&A, but I think it’s clear that Tardiolo is a young man discovered in a college in Orvieto with no acting experience and initially no real desire to appear in a film. It might be supposed that it was relatively straightforward to ask him to smile all the time and say very little, but I think there must be much more to it than that and the performance under Rohrwacher’s direction is absolutely convincing. During the Q&A a confident questioner told the director that she was drawing on the work of three famous Italian directors (which he named) and asked her to comment on why she chose them. She replied with a smile that she had been told by many people that she had drawn on a whole long list of famous Italian directors and proceeded to name several. Happy as Lazzaro is completely an Alice Rohwacher film but several scenes do remind us of the history of Italian cinema and in particular the impact of neo-realism in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The technical credits for the film also suggest a conscious attempt to remind us of an earlier period of cinema. The mostly female crew (including Hélène Louvart as cinematographer) were working with Super 16mm film. Alice Rohrwacher says this, “wasn’t made for reasons of style or nostalgia but out of enchantment with a fantastic technology that influences one’s method of working”. But she did decide to use a slightly cropped version of the 1.66:1 aspect ratio common as a widescreen compromise in European cinema. The film is listed as ‘1.63:1’ with the corners masked as rounded, suggesting a technique from silent cinema. The other intriguing aspect of the production is that tempesta, the main production company (of producer Carlo Cresto-Dina), used new production techniques:
. . . ‘EcoMuvi’, the protocol of environmental sustainability for the film industry created by tempesta. EcoMuvi, first in Europe, is a real“ production process” that can indicate the best solutions to achieve energy savings and environmental sustainability in film production. Not just compensation but anactive step-by-step procedure tomake films with lighter impact on our planet. Thanks to Ecomuvi 10 tons of CO2 were saved in pre-production and production.
Happy as Lazzaro gave me one of the most enjoyable and encouraging afternoons in a cinema that I experienced in a very long time. The trailer is careful not to spoil the narrative surprises.
Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher made a strong début with her 2011 film Corpo celeste (Heavenly Body) which showed in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, winning a prize. Although Artificial Eye released the film in the UK in 2012, it got little exposure and I missed it. I’ll certainly seek it out after seeing her new film The Wonders. I understand that both films have something of an autobiographical influence and the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher, well-known on Italian screens, appears in The Wonders.
Alice Rohrwacher has an Italian mother and a German father who was a beekeeper. These are all part of the ‘narrative material’ of The Wonders. I find it difficult to categorise this film. There are strong elements of neo-realism, sometimes developed in surprising ways, and also moments of if not ‘magic realism’ at least something vaguely spiritual or fantastical. It’s also funny, dramatic and very moving. In genre terms I suppose it is a ‘coming of age’ narrative, but just as importantly it is a commentary on aspects of contemporary society – delivered with humour but also acuity. The Wonders won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014, but I’ve also seen reviews that describe it as ‘slight’. I couldn’t disagree more.
The family at the centre of the film comprises an Italian mother, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), a German father (Belgian actor Sam Louwick) who keeps bees in the organic/’natural’/’bio’ manner, their four young daughters and Coco a family friend (also German, I think). It isn’t clear if they are squatting on the land or renting it. Clearly they don’t have much money and the bulk of the work seems to be organised by Wolfgang, but actually carried out by the eldest daughter Gelsomina. I’m not sure how old she is meant to be – 12-13 perhaps? The ‘business’ has all kinds of problems, but the two ‘disruptions’ that drive the narrative are a reality TV show, ‘The Wonders’, and the arrival of a 14 year-old boy seemingly as cheap labour on some kind of rehabilitation/probation scheme (he’s German as well). The reality show is a brilliant satire of Italian TV in which Monica Bellucci in a long white wig is a kind of carnival queen looking for colourful locals who in this part of coastal Tuscany can represent the farming community and evoke the ancient Etruscan culture. Wolfgang ignores the show but Gelsomina is entranced and secretly registers the family for the show. The boy says very little but entrances the girls with his ability to whistle.
“Le meraviglie is a film about the countryside, about the somewhat peculiar love between a father and his daughters, about missing male sons, about animals and little people that live in the television. It is a film in the viterbese dialect, but when the characters are angry, they even respond sometimes in French and German. Le meraviglie is also a fable.” (Alice Rohrwacher in the Press Notes)
I think that the film can be enjoyed simply on the level of the coming of age/family story (which does have a slight ‘twist’ at the end) but its real strength is Rohrwacher’s commentary on being an outsider – or an outsider community. She stresses that her setting is a specific region of Italy, where Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria meet and where dialect is still important and mingles with the languages of migrants. She points out that though many think of rural areas as somehow more ‘pure’ and monocultural, they are in this region likely to include the mixed family groups of which this family is representative. (Alexandra Lungu who plays Gelsomina comes from a Romanian family.) But it is more than just a story of migrations. Rohrwacher also points to the marginal position of Wolfgang and Angelica in terms of politics and lifestyles:
“They are people that arrived in the country as a political choice because in the cities there were no more jobs and years of demonstrations had been stifled by violence and disillusionment. So they read books, learned to make a vegetable garden with handbooks, tried hard, and fought the seasons alone. They are all ex-somethings, with different languages, distant pasts, but with common ideals. I have met many families like this in Italy, but also in France, in Greece. Small communities untethered to the rest, with autonomous rules and a parallel life to that which we read about in the newspaper. But it is not a simple life: you have to work hard and it is difficulty to survive without the comfort of belonging to a movement. You are not a true farmer because you are not from the land, but you can also not be defined as a city person because you have severed ties to the city. You are not hippies because you break your back from sun-up to sundown, but you are also not agricultural entrepreneurs because you reject the use of more efficient agricultural technology in the name of a healthier life. Not having a movement, a definition which can be ascribed from the outside, all that remains is one word: family.”
I realised while watching the film that I’d seen another film about a struggling family living on the land. Will It Snow For Christmas? (France 1996, dir. Sandrine Veysset) is a much bleaker and more realist film but it would be interesting to compare them. I’m still thinking through my readings of The Wonders – there are further remarks from Alice Rohrwacher about the post-1968 generation and conflicting ideas about what the changes post-1968 might mean – but I think it is also worth exploring what the film means in terms of the large number of migrants from Africa now entering Italy as the access point to Europe. I’ll definitely be coming back to this film which has been acquired for a UK release by Soda Pictures.