One of the most mercurial films to come out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Happy as Lazzaro continues the pastoral, fuzzy, granular outlook of Alice Rohrwacher’s previous films, but extends it in a new and unsettling direction. The film opens in the midst of a rural Italian community called Inviolata, where we follow a group of peasants as they go about their daily life as tobacco harvesters. Although Lazzaro, played by Adriano Tardiolo, is the supposed focus of the film, he takes a while to emerge from the collective rhythm of the labourers around him, and even then is a little too blank, and a little too vacant, to ever really feel like a main character, or even a character, in his own right. We first glimpse him in the opening shot, “gazing into the void” at the edge of the main peasant compound, in what turns out to be a fairly regular habit for him, part of a more general oddness that ensures that he is more or less left to his own devices while the workers around him go on with their daily rituals and routines. Those routines form the subject matter of the first thirty minutes or so of the film, as Rohrwacher immerses us in a feudal arrangement in which the workers all live, breathe and sleep in one mass, in pointed contrast to the Marquise Alfonsina, played by Nicoletta Braschi, and her son, the Marquis Tancredi, played by Luca Chikovani, who oversee the tobacco workers from a stone mansion built at the edge of the plantation.
From the very beginning, however, this feudal realism, or feudal naturalism, is somewhat disrupted in its hold over the film. For one thing, the presence of rudimentary mobile phone technology, combined with the frequency of Italian synthpop on Tancredi’s portable radio, indicates that this can’t be occurring in an actual feudal timeframe, even if it never quite seems to be occurring in the present either. For another thing, the architecture of the film never quite seems to belong to any single period either, as the rusticity of the workers’ quarters, and the Gothic edifice of the Marquise’s dwelling, is offset by a piecemeal Art Deco interior, along with the ruins of what appears to be a train line and rail bridge in the valley outside. More generally, and elusively, there’s a ripple around the edges of the film’s reality field that is quite difficult to place, and often a matter of a grating shift in tone, or a gaze that is held too long, or an unexpected vantage point, as much as anything that is tangibly happening in the narrative. That strange space between the diegetic world of the film and Rohrwacher’s artistic decisions as director is encapsulated in the role that the wind plays throughout this opening half, where it repeatedly contours the borders of what initially appears to be a self-contained world, evoking another entity coming from beyond.
This focus on the wind becomes most apparent when the collective mass of the workers comes up against the individualism of the Marquise and Marquis, who typically hear a whooshing and whipping sound in their presence that at first seems like it is something that only the aristocracy and the audience can hear – an audio effect added after filming to convey a sense of something occurring beyond the boundaries of Rohrwacher’s mise-en-scene. After a while, however, it becomes clear that this sound of wind is in fact a noise that the workers are making, albeit a noise that seems to have somehow crossed into the Marquise and Marquis’ heads, as well as into the non-diegetic frame of the film itself. Moreover, it’s clear that the workers’ consider this sound of wind, which they accompany with a twist of their hands, to have some kind of supernatural or superstitious import, even if it’s never quite clarified what this import is, or even how it relates to the Marquise and Marquis. Nevertheless, it percolates out across the film as a way of articulating, or envisaging, something that lies beyond the reality-principle of this feudal world, something that can perhaps only be articulated through superstition and ritual, but which nevertheless affirms the workers’ inchoate and collective sense that their reality, and their diegesis, is shaped by a directorial presence, and an ideological imperative, they can’t fully understand.
For that reason, the wind becomes a force of uncanniness across this first act more generally, sculpting and scalloping the Italian landscape into one lunar abstraction after another, until it feels as if the void that Lazzaro is perpetually starting into has expanded to become the entire space and ambit of the film. That expansion coincides with Lazzaro’s growing friendship with the Marquis, who implores to kidnap him, or at least allow him to hide with him while he pretends to be kidnapped, in order to escape the oppressive regime of the Marquise and her staff. Since the Marquis takes refuge in Lazzaro’s hideout high up in the mountains, this part of the film takes place exclusively amongst these otherworldly landscapes, whose parameters are thrown into beautiful and unnerving relief by Helene Louvart’s sensuous cinematography, which evokes the grainy naturalism of 70s cinema only to make this more uncanny dimension of the landscape feel stranger and eerier still. As the film proceeds, the wind intensifies, until Rohrwacher abruptly cuts to a series of drone shots from the wind’s perspective, which glide across the landscape and command one astounded look from the workers after another, before finally arriving at Lazzaro himself, who is so astonished that he falls backwards over an enormous cliff, to what appears to be his death.
In other words, the wind and the camera fuse, to the point where it seems as if Lazzaro, and the other peasants, have actually witnessed Rohrwacher’s camera dictating the conditions of their existence, and suddenly realised that the realism that they took for granted was actually serving a purpose for an audience they hadn’t even known existed. It’s a wonderful twist, then, when this drone footage actually turns out to be a helicopter, which is bringing a policeman to Inviolata to investigate the relationship between the Marquise, the Marquis and their workers. In a sudden shift in tone and pace, it emerges that the Marquise has been continuing sharecropping practices after they have been outlawed, and that she has convinced her workers that they don’t need to sign a contract, or to be remunerated, instead assuring them that their labour is necessary to pay off their ongoing debt to her. Within hours, the workers are shipped off to the city and the Marquise is taken to face criminal action, leaving Lazzaro still lying at the bottom of the cliff where he fell. In a magical realist interlude, Rohrwacher now depicts Lazzaro being resurrected much like his biblical namesake, and wandering through the ruins of Inviolata and out into the remaining countryside, before making his way for the nearby city, where the community was escorted.
Over the course of this journey, it gradually becomes clear that some time has passed since Inviolata was dismantled. As Lazarro arrives at the unnamed city, and links up again with the community, that timeframe grows bigger and bigger, culminating with his meeting with Tancredi, who is now a white-haired man, played by Tommaso Ragno, making it clear that at least thirty years have elapsed, placing this second half of the film in the present day. As we move through Lazarro’s new routine, we learn that the actions of the Marquise have become common knowledge, and even passed into folklore, with one stranger after another showing that they’re still very much aware of the “Great Tobacco Swindle” and the “Cigarette Queen” of the 1980s, even if not all that much has really been done to help the community and workers themselves, who are living in an arguably even more squalid condition than before, in a makeshift camp wedged between a highway and a rail corridor.
This second half of the film is all the more surreal for the fact that Lazzaro himself hasn’t aged, and doesn’t seem to have any clear sense of how he was resurrected, or even of the differences between his life in Inviolata and his life in the city. Instead, he wanders, dream-like, through the urban streets much as he wandered through the mountains, so catatonic that he still partly believes that he is indebted to the Marquise, and that the economic system of Inviolata is, indeed, still involate, leading him to rob a bank at the end of the film in order to restore his mistress from penury after discovering that all her assets were seized when the scam was finally brought to light. That continuity in Lazzaro’s behavior means that this industrial town never feels more real, or more present, than the agrarian fantasy he’s left behind, just as the capitalist realism of the present tense never feels more real than the feudal realism of Inviolata, as it might easily do in a more conventional or tonally consistent film. If anything, the capitalist realism of this anonymous industrial town feels less real than the feudal realism of the Marquise’s kingdom, if only because its claims to realism seem more emphatic and unarguable than those made by the oddly abstracted space of Inviolata.
To her credit, however, Rohrwacher persistently ignores these claims to realism, shooting this industrial zone much as she shot Inviolata, and while the wind may not play quite the same role, there’s the same, persistent sense of something rupturing the edge of the film’s reality field. To some extent, that’s a matter of the actual urban spaces involved, since Rohrwacher continually gravitates towards intersitital zones that defies any stable purpose or function within the overarching urban matrix, often recalling the otherworldly charge that the connective tissue of Seraing plays in the Dardennes’ films. At moments, this could almost play as a neorealist exercise, but even that is offset by a few magical touches, most of which collapse diegesis and non-diegesis in a similar manner to the first act, most notably when a choral performance seems to dissociate itself from a church and float, wind-like, over to the peasants’ makeshift dwellings. The fact that different characters seem to have aged at different rates also offsets any sense that the reality principle of the film has simply been reset by moving to a capitalist milieu, while the curved edges of the film frame, which seemed quite natural and bucolic in the opening half, feel more contrived and atonal here, continually reminding us that what we’re seeing is just as bracketed by the camera’s lens.
In the end, then, capitalist realism is no more real than feudal realism, a situation that is most acutely felt around Lazzaro, just because he’s the most ingenuous, and so the most exploitable, of all the characters in the film. As the Marquise points out, “I exploit them and they exploit him – it’s like a chain reaction,” and yet Lazzaro’s willingness to accept whatever reality system is presented to him also means that the reality field of the film tends to dissolve and shimmer around his person as well. In the feudal sequences, the capitalist future is already present in his gestures and manners, while in the capitalist sequences, the feudal past is still present in his gestures and manners, imbuing his very malleability with an immortality that allows him to survive the shift in what constitutes realism over the course of the film. Conversely, and paradoxically, it’s actually by acclimatising fully to the new reality principle of capitalism that the peasants age and die in real time, even as Lazzaro stays on the same strange cusp between regimes that he has always inhabited. Adopting reality as an economic construction thus becomes weirdly liberating, displacing magical realism into the film’s more pervasive and unsettling premise that any economic system is a form of magical realism, setting entirely arbitrary and unbelievable conditions as reality and then enforcing them through material means. And it’s that revised realism that the strange and emergent atmosphere of Happy as Lazzaro lies, suggesting that it’s only through magic, and through the outermost limits of what constitutes realism, that we can start to articulate the economic systems that articulate us.