Written by: Alice Rohrwacher
Starring: Adriano Tardiolo, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergi López, Alba Rohrwacher, Luca Chikovani
Going out into the world serves as the act of being corrupted piece by piece where our innocence dwindles. A reality everyone must face, as being innocent not only cannot be possible for one’s whole life, but it also comes with various dangers. Happy as Lazzaro looks at this predicament with a gentle neorealistic lens and with a light touch of fantasy to accentuate all it brings to digest.
In a small Italian town, a group of farmhands work as sharecroppers on property owned by a wealthy tobacco family. Amongst them is Lazarro (Adriano Tardiolo) a quiet and sweet young man who typically does everything he’s told, does favors whenever he can, and still manages to get mistreated by others. As the son of the matriarch running the property goes missing, questions arise about what actually takes place here with the workers.
Watching Happy as Lazzaro and not falling in love with the delicate performance by Adriano Tardiolo would simply be impossible. He represents a level of purity and innocence that would be wrung out of anyone by that age. A level of grace and compassion one has when they believe the world to be just and for others to be inherently kind. Something people learn through getting burned in their lives, does not carry truth but going through this journey with Lazzaro gives each character the opportunity to demonstrate who they are versus what they want to represent.
As the film progresses, it gets revealed there’s more than possibly meets the eye with Lazzaro but on a basic level he represents a litmus test for other people. If they treat someone like Lazzaro with blatant disrespect and harm then it shows a particular cruelty that would not look the same if it were done to other people. The difference comes in what Lazzaro represents, showing a level of child-like naivete one would not expect from a man of his age; he reflects a mirror to society and how even those at the bottom of the ladder will kick down anyone they see below them. This gets discussed specifically between the matriarch of the property and others. The wealthy look down upon the poor to the point of them essentially being slaves, but it gets pointed out these poor farm hands treat Lazzaro with the same disdain, which says a lot about how humans treat others even if facing the same oppression.
Issues like this can be traced back to early times in civilization where those at the top turn the individuals at the bottom against each other in order for the bottom-dwellers not to figure out the common enemy is the manipulator at the top of the mountain. At times it’s intentional, but the farmhands here do not waste any time in turning their frustrations down and they see Lazzaro as an easy target because of his demeanor. It makes some of the sequences in the feature extremely upsetting seeing as Lazzaro does nothing but be incredibly nice and respectful to the people around him, yet he still faces the vitriol of others.
Even with the harsh attitudes Lazzaro must contend with throughout the feature, there remains a distinct sweetness to this story, because of the titular character. It leads me back to Adriano Tardiolo’s performance. He manages to maintain almost a blank look in his eyes, yet with also a soft level of care also beaming right from it. Each response comes with a level of reassurance. Even when asked to do some of the most unreasonable actions, he always answers with a “sure.” It really warms the heart even if others take advantage of it because Lazzaro remains true to himself no matter what, which cannot also be said for many of the other characters in the feature.
Utilizing an Italian neorealism to tell this story, writer/director Alice Rohrwacher creates beautifully luscious visuals on top of the heartwarming story at play. Capturing this Italian countryside, with all of its splendor sets the scene for where these characters reside and how Lazzaro could navigate freely here. With a change of scenery, things get a bit dicier, which plays into a reveal I have tried to tiptoe around. It comes as a bit of a shock, so I certainly would want anyone to experience it on their own. Lazzaro’s experience in each says plenty as well and Rohrwacher ensures to communicate this very idea through her direction.
The way Rohrwacher fixates on the titular character allows him to be that mirror to the point where he becomes nearly mystical. This film in all its ways just demonstrates the greatness she can emulate. This along with Copro Celeste shows themes she likes to tackle, especially with how it relates to the Italian experience. This film has a strong spiritual aspect to it and the way it pairs between Lazzaro as a figure and the appearance of a priest on this essential plantation carries on her ideas about the Catholic Church as an institution. Rohrwacher lays it all out with some subtlety but her strong convictions emboldens her works to match the effervescent touch she composes through her camera work.
Absolutely lovely to its core with many purposefully aggravating moments, Happy as Lazzaro allows you to get a definitive answer as to what people do to the innocent. They can talk a big game, but when the rubber meets the road, people look beyond their own issues and peer upon those below them in order to release their anger. No matter how many wonderfully nice gestures Lazzaro can provide to the people around him, these individuals reveal their true identities and it does not show exactly what they may believe it does. Truly a gorgeous film and one continually making me think about its themes and messaging.