But Not For Always: Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro

Adriano Tardiolo and Luca Chikovani in Happy as Lazzaro. Image courtesy of Netflix

“So he began to wonder whether there was not something he could do to protect the folk of his parish, not only against them, but against all the evils that might come to Brigadoon from the outside world after he died. Then one day he came to me and told me that he had decided to ask God for a miracle. And on an early Wednesday mornin', right after midnight he went out to a hill beyond Brigadoon and made his prayer to God. And there, in the hush of the sleeping world he asked God that night to make Brigadoon and all the people in it vanish into the highland mist. Vanish, but not for always. They would return just as they were for one day every hundred years. The people would lead their customary lives but every day when they awoke it would be a hundred years later. And when we awoke next day it was a hundred years later.”

-Brigadoon (1954), directed by Vincente Minnelli

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Alice Rohrwacher's third feature film opens at night, in a mess of muddy, 16mm darkness. Characters stumble around, inside and outdoors, until suddenly a switch is flipped and a group of girls, all wearing old-fashioned white nightgowns, are shown in a room together. The effect is both stunning and jarring, the rapid switch from dark to light, from the unknown to the known, robbing the movie of any traditional exposition. As things progress the world of the movie ends up being the world of an extended family of poor tobacco farmers working for a woman they call the "Marquise” or “The Queen of Cigarettes” on an isolated property that is quite plainly named "Inviolata” (Inviolable).

The tobacco workers, among them a young man named Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), serve the Marquise and her son Tancredi  (Luca Chikovani) as well as manage the tobacco crop and maintain the land. An early scene indicates that they are in debt and must continue working and living on the land without gaining anything for themselves. Their situation recalls a kind of serfdom, abolished the world over in the 19th century, and before Tancredi shows up with bleached blonde hair, more modern clothes, and some technological devices, it’s somewhat unclear when the film is actually taking place. 

In the first half of the film Rohrwacher deftly weaves together the processes of tobacco farming with the melodrama of the farmers and those that are taking advantage of them. The combination calls to mind another filmmaker who merged process with the more sensitive aspects of humanity, Delmer Daves. In Parrish (1961) he too went to specific lengths to examine the world of tobacco farming (in Connecticut of all places) in conjunction with the interpersonal and larger issues of class and white-collar crime. And like all of Daves’s late period films, Lazzaro is a gentle film about harsh things. The grim nature of the plot doesn’t extend to the filmmaking, which is surprisingly elegant and, with her use of 16mm (lensed by Hélène Louvart, who has shot each of Rohrwacher’s three features), soft to the touch. She spends time on faces and body language, specifically the titular Lazzaro’s strange and hulking figure and how he holds himself, how he walks.

Lazzaro is always lurking, caught somewhere in time between childhood and adulthood, his dark and manly chest hair poking out over his shirt as he is ordered around (and accepts said orders) like a gullible child. He soon becomes friendly with Tancredi, their relationship leading to a practical joke, which leads to a misunderstanding, which leads to a drastic and shocking shift halfway through the film. The second half finds Lazzaro, wide-eyed as ever, navigating a present day urban world of poverty without understanding the codes of that landscape. The rules of the film, of time, are never quite clear but Rohracher uses other instincts to carefully tie the film together, giving it a special coherence, one based on cinema, on the progression of light and texture and landscape, instead of traditional narrative logic.

Aerial shots of the land appear throughout, opening up the picture beyond the immediate experience of the story and at the same time highlighting what binds the story and its characters together, the earth. In discussing Lazzaro, words like time travel and fable have been bandied about, but the film seems less concerned with the stars or hidden morals and more with a straightforward and present day connection between humanity and the ground we walk on. She uses the shapes and colors of the large tobacco leaves, to reveal a love affair. She uses the unwieldy hillside to showcase the difference in Tancredi and Lazzaro’s bodies and, thus, their backgrounds. The golden yellows of the film’s rural first half give way to the muted blues of the urban second half.

The name Tancredi easily recalls Visconti’s Il Gattapardo (1963), another film that explicitly deals with the passage of time. But here, instead of staring at an old man as he confronts his own mortality and the rapid change surrounding him, the ending of Happy as Lazarro focuses on the eyes of a young man inexplicably confronting a modern world—or perhaps a world beyond modernity.

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Buffalo Bill – “What killed my son?”
Doctor – “Diphtheria”
Buffalo Bill – “What’s that?
Doctor – “It’s a germ”
Buffalo Bill – “Where does it come from?”
Doctor – “Water systems, sewage, it’s a crowd disease, a disease of civilization.”
Buffalo Bill – “Civilization….  the West wasn’t good enough for him. If you left him where he belonged he’d be alive today.”

-Buffalo Bill (1944), directed by William A. Wellman

Contributor

Gina Telaroli

GINA TELAROLI, raised in Cleveland and currently based in NYC, is a filmmaker, writer, and the video archivist at Martin Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions. She is co-editor of the Film Section for the Brooklyn Rail.

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