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.
There is a line in A Paris Education uttered by one film student to another referring to “a long whiney French film”. That’s quite a brave line in a film that lasts 136 minutes and presents characters in B+W CinemaScope talking endlessly about film and ‘love’ and occasionally staring hard out of the window or just looking blank and consumed by their own thoughts. However, for an audience supposedly steeped in French cinema this should be an interesting experience. But apparently not for all as several people walked out of the LFF screening before the end.
The director Jean-Paul Civeyrac is very experienced, having shot his first feature in 1997 and developed a career in which he taught at the leading French film school La fémis, becoming head of direction and then at the film school at Paris VIII University. He’s been around film students for a long time and knows how they tick. Drawing on his own experiences he constructed a script as a form of ‘autofiction’ and shot part of it in his own university. The story offers us Etienne (Andranic Manet) as an aspiring film student who arrives in Paris from Lyon and discovers he is sharing a flat with Valentina courtesy of a family contact. She is the first of several attractive women who might slide into his bed – something of an issue for Lucie, his girlfriend of six years left behind in Lyon. Etienne joins the film class and soon becomes known as an old-style cinephile who acquires two close friends, the sociable gay man Jean-Noël (Gonzague Van Bervesseles) and the intellectual bully Mathias (Corentin Fila). The narrative then meanders over the next couple of years during which Etienne attempts to make his course film and sort out his love life. A coda reveals what has happened to Etienne a few years after he has left Paris VIII.
I didn’t walk out of the film but I did struggle at times to be fully engaged by the narrative and the characters. This version of film school life seems quite laid-back. I’d gone into the screening wondering if the film would directly reference La nouvelle vague and the nearest it came to doing this was the ‘Rohmeresque’ nature of some of the encounters between young men and young women. One scene in particular seems to echo Rohmer’s My Night with Maud (1969) during which a debate about religion and morality in Pascal’s writing fails to lead to sexual congress. It was only later, reading some reviews, that I realised that the model for this kind of film is not the films of the Cahiers du cinéma group of New Wave directors, but the later directors Jean Eustache and Philippe Garrel. Eustache (1938-1981) was a ‘provincial’ like Etienne and his friends and his most celebrated work was The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain, 1973). This long film (219 mins) starred Jean-Pierre Léaud and Bernadette Lafont in a narrative which has some similarities to A Paris Education and has been celebrated as one of the best French films ever made – though it divided critical opinion when it won the Cannes Grand Prix. I haven’t seen any of the films of Eustache or Garrel. Several titles by the latter have recently screened on MUBI in the UK. If I had known these films I might have got more from A Paris Education.
I think perhaps that I found this new film too lacking in vitality, though I was impressed by all the young actors. The literary references are fine but I found the classical music score overpowering at times. The Press Notes carry a revealing interview with the director in which he reveals that the script was written quickly and shot just four months later – which ought to have given it the vitality that I didn’t find. He also explains that he saw Marlen Khutsiev’s Ilyich’s Gate (also known as I Am Twenty) a Russian film from 1965 in 2016 and that this was the inspiration behind the script. The Russian film was censored (cut in half) in the 1960s and not released in its full three-hour version until 1989. It deals with a young man of twenty returning to his Moscow neighbourhood after two years of service and arguing about life with his old friends. Wikipedia suggests the Russian authorities didn’t like the idea of young people thinking for themselves. It also suggests that the future directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky both play small roles in the film and that references were made to François Truffaut’s work by critics at the time. In A Paris Education, the three friends watch the film on Etienne’s laptop in his darkened bedroom. The reference to this film and the work of the earlier Russian filmmaker Boris Barnet suggest the careful inclusion of names from film history. This actually begins when we sit in on the first lecture Etienne attends – an Introduction to post-war Italian cinema during which the lecturer reels off a list of directors, two of which were unknown to me. She then challenges the class to name any directors of similar stature since the 1960s. This is the beginning of the antagonism between the would-be Tarantinos in the film class and the ‘true cinephiles’ represented by Etienne and his two friends. In the Notes, Jean-Paul Civeyrac tells us in a response to a question about the fervour of students for cinema:
. . . only a minority truly possess it. At that age, many of them are trying to find themselves or flirting with the film business and, if they carve out a place in it, they don’t direct. The fervour for cinema that features in A Paris Education is the one that drives anybody for whom making a film is an existential quest.
If you want to know if Etienne eventually makes it you’ll have to watch the film. I’m not sure if this film will get any kind of UK release, but if you get the chance to see it, I recommend reading the Press Notes first.
LFF came up trumps with this comedy roadtrip. I enjoyed the film very much and was dismayed that the morning showing was not well attended. When Olmo Omerzu introduced his film I thought that this tall, gangling young man looked vaguely familiar and by the end of the film I had realised that I’d seen him receive praise at the Bradford International Film Festival for his first feature A Night Too Young (2012). It’s great to see a young filmmaker growing in confidence on this his third feature. Just as in A Night Too Young, the new film takes two younger teenagers as its entertaining central characters. In the earlier film the boys were 12 but here they are a couple of years older – but still not old enough to be driving across the Czech Republic. In the Q&A that followed Olmo told us that the script had been written by a teacher and that it had won a prize in a radio drama competition but that the ‘bad language’ content had made it impossible to broadcast. Omerzu took a long time to find two young non-actors and they strove to learn the script. The result is an absolute joy.
The film opens with what I thought at first was a hunter dressed in a fancy dress costume as an enormous flightless bird. But then I realised it was an overweight boy rather alarmingly carrying what seemed to be an assault rifle. But any fear was soon undercut by his struggles to clamber over some large pipes leading into a lake, not helped by the hood of his costume falling over his eyes. This is Heduš and soon we also meet Mára who has hot-wired a car and reluctantly accepts Heduš (who he knows) as a travelling companion. Soon, however, Mára appears to have been arrested and the car impounded. Olmo Ormetzu is telling the story in non-linear fashion and we return to the road trip via the interrogation of Mára by a female police officer. But the key to the narrative is that we very gradually begin to doubt the story that Mára is telling. Is it all a fantasy with a simple explanation or did it really happen precisely as he recounts it?
This is a road trip and the boys meet various characters and have various adventures. These are not ‘bad lads’. Mára is very bright and cocky, Heduš is naïve and still child-like – his rifle is a toy, but proves useful on a couple of occasions – but he is also quite resourceful. It isn’t difficult to root for them. The two police officers are rounded characters too, the male one being more aggressive but the female one more cunning. We are on the boys’ side. As the title suggests, it is winter and not the best time to be ‘on the run’. The winter landscapes are presented in drab colours and in compositions for the CinemaScope frame by Lukás Milota who has shot all three of Omerzu’s films. Music is important in road movies and there is an interesting mix here. I should have asked the director about the soft reggae track. The film is well-edited to strengthen the narrative drive incorporating a non-linear structure. The dialogue is beautifully written and the performances by the boys are exceptional. The ‘bad language’ mainly arises from two young teenagers with vivid imaginations confronted at one point with a young woman in her early twenties thumbing a ride. But enough of that, there are plenty of adventures and something magical about Mára’s stories of his grandfather who taught him everything he knows (including how to revive houseflies!).
I hope some enterprising sales agent manages to sell the film for distribution in the UK. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying Winter Flies. I won’t be so slow to recognise Olmo Omerzu next time and I look forward to the possibility of seeing his next film. Here’s the international trailer:
Following Crystal Swan, my second LFF choice turned out to be almost the opposite kind of film. A Family Tour is a much more serious and thoughtful film but is perhaps too low-key to catch the attention it deserves as a commentary on the lot of independent filmmakers in China. The narrative is based on events in the life of the film’s director Ying Liang. It concerns an independent filmmaker from North East China whose film has been banned in the PRC because it discusses a local criminal trial viewed as having political implications. Director Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) has been forced to leave China and join her husband Cheung Ka-Ming (Pete Teo) and small son in Hong Kong where father and son have the protection of birth in the SAR (‘Special Administrative Region’) whereas Shu herself must keep seeking the right to remain. She can’t go back to the mainland in case she is detained. However, Shu’s mother Chen Xiaolin (Nai An) is now ill with heart disease and Shu feels she must see her again.
The opportunity to meet comes when Yang Shu is invited to present her film at the Formosa Film Festival in Taiwan. Her elderly mother can join a tour party in Taipei (one of the few ways in which trips to Taiwan from China are allowed) and Yang Shu and her family can book into the same hotel. They can’t however meet Mrs Chen directly. Instead they must pretend she is simply a family friend and meet her ‘accidentally’ as the tour bus visits various tourist destinations. The tour party is led by a small but ferocious woman briefed by the PRC authorities and she is keen to enforce the rules (and to receive ‘sweeteners’ from Cheung Ka-Ming). As this strange family reunion trundles around Taiwan, several different discourses about home, family, loyalty, exile and identity emerge. There is an emotional desire to see her grandson in the flesh from Mrs Chen (she has kept in touch via Skype) but for Yang Shu there is pain and anger as she learns more about what happened to her father and also a different kind of loss when Mrs Chen tells her about the changes in her home town. Cheung Ka-Ming wants to support his wife and mother-in-law, but in some ways his capacity to move between the mainland and Hong Kong makes his wife feel more isolated.
Meanwhile, the film festival occasionally intrudes and more importantly, Yang Shu’s next film, a Hong Kong production which features the Umbrella Protests in 2014, runs into problems which might be caused by the mainland authorities. I found the Variety Review of the film by Jay Weissberg to be informative and insightful. I can see that there are many interesting aspects of the narrative and that it conveys the anguish of exile and separation and the impact of learning about the past in subtle and affecting ways. It is a well-made and attractive film to watch but somehow it just felt too restrained. The problem is no doubt with me. Yang Shu is reserved and her anger is often internal, Cheung Ka-Ming is more outgoing, kind and considerate – but then he is not under pressure in the same way. I haven’t seen the previous films from Ying Liang. Reviewers suggest he has introduced some more intimate shots into his usual long shot style. The consensus seems to be that this film is a welcome development in the handling of what is quite an austere aesthetic approach and that it should have a successful run on the festival circuit.
The first of this year’s London Film Festival offerings that I was able to catch was introduced by a festival advisor as something exotic – a film from Belarus. And indeed, Belarus does produce very few films. It’s very much an ‘in between’ part of the world – in between Poland and Russia, the Baltic states and Ukraine. Throughout history it seems to have been occupied by its neighbours and the present state dates only from the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990. It is known for its autocratic president in power since 1994 and has some of the lowest international standings for press freedom and general democracy indicators. A place to get away from perhaps? That is certainly true for the film’s protagonist Velya (Alina Nasibullina). The year is 1996 and Velya, a young woman in her early 20s is determined to acquire a US visa, allowing her to travel to Chicago, the home of ‘house music’. Velya is a law graduate but would prefer to be a DJ rather than practise law.
During a spirited intro and a Q&A after the screening the seemingly appreciative audience learned that the writer-director Darya Zhuk was actually drawing on her own experiences in the 1990s. She did get to the US to study film and has now been able to find funding outside the state system to make her début feature. Crystal Swan was programmed by LFF in its ‘Laugh’ strand. I find these strands annoying and often misleading. I certainly smirked a few times and might even have laughed out loud on occasion, but this isn’t what I would see as a simple comedy. Instead it is more akin to the kind of social satire that is often found in Eastern European cinema and I was reminded of several films, but most of all a Romanian film from 2011, Adalbert’s Dream. That film was set in 1986 before the end of Soviet-style communism but the social satire is similar.
The basic premise of the plot is that Velya attempts to forge a letter presented to the US Embassy purporting to confirm that she is a manager at a small crystalware glass factory (she buys a letterhead for the factory’s stationery). But she makes a mistake with the phone number of the factory and when the Embassy official tells her that they will phone the factory to confirm details, she realises the hole she has fallen into. She must travel to the town known as ‘Crystal’ and find the house with the telephone fitting the number on her application and attempt to intercept the Embassy’s call. Cue general mayhem in small-town Belarus, where the household in question is preparing for the wedding of the son of the house. Just like weddings in the North of England, a wedding in Belarus brings out the best and the worst of guests, especially when fuelled by vodka.
I was engaged by the film and I enjoyed it up to a point. There aren’t many dull moments and most of the time there is genuine vitality in the storytelling. For a début film it works well and there is a great performance in the lead role. Alina Nasibullina is intelligent, attractive and vivacious with her colourful outfits, but the narrative includes very dark moments as well as moments of slapstick and good humour. In this sense it is a film for the #MeToo generation. Darya Zhuk told us that when she accompanied film screenings in the East of Belarus (i.e. closer to Russia) she did get a significant number of negative comments (about insulting the Motherland), but when she screened the film in the capital Minsk and in the West of the country it was generally well-received. This makes sense. The script doesn’t pull punches. The men in Crystal behave badly after too much vodka and there is an odd sub-plot involving Velya’s mother (the curator of a Minsk museum celebrating the success of Minsk’s population in the fight against the Nazis) and Velya’s dopehead boyfriend. During the Q&A the film’s supporters were vocal in their praise and I suspect Crystal Swan might do well in the US. I doubt it will get a UK release but you never can tell. The title, by the way, refers to one of the products of the factory which since independence has laid off workers and paid compensation in the form of glassware. The only real hope in the film is that the youngest boy in the Crystal family may turn out OK. Otherwise the film has an open ending.
As the trailer below indicates, the film is presented in Academy ratio. I think the director said she thought this was appropriate to re-produce the way she saw things in the 1990s before TVs in Belarus went widescreen. The trailer also features the bright and optimistic colours that Velya wears.