Happy As Lazzaro

What a strange, beautiful, ungraspable film this is, from Italy’s Alice Rohrwacher (her Dad was a German beekeeper), one of my favourites from last year’s Cannes.

I actually thought she might be the female film maker to carry off the top prize but, like her film, that remained tantalisingly out of reach and she ended up with the Best Screenplay award, which is fine, I suppose, because it’s based on a really great story and idea although, for me, it’s the mise en scene that lingers.

That story is one Rohrwacher says she found in a newspaper cutting in the 90s. I can’t vouch for its truth and in any case she uses the ‘facts’ as the departure for a dream-like fable about past and present, rural and urban, history and modernity clashing. 

In that sense there’s a classic strain of Italian neo-realism that runs through it (from Rome Open City, Bicycle Thieves and La Strada, to The Tree of Wooden Clogs and even Cinema Paradiso) although there’s something entirely original and wonderful about it. Indeed, Rohrwacher’s last film was actually called The Wonders.

We begin in a rural settlement, a sort of farm populated by chickens and hard-working peasants who live in straw-filled out-houses and clamour for deliveries from a dodgy bloke in a clapped out van who marks all their purchases (made via a sort of barter system) in a note book – needless to say, his maths always equate to them being in hock.

We glean that they’re tobacco farmers, working a sort of plantation, like sharecroppers, run by an imperiously eccentric Marchesa who lives in a once-splendid mansion a little further off. It’s hard to tell what year it is – there are some threshing machines and rusty tractors but little else is mechanised.

Processing serenely through all the rustic rigmarole is wide-eyed Lazzaro, a young man with the strength of an ox and the patience of a saint – both of these are dominant local images. Everyone’s asking Lazzaro for favours, to do the heavy lifting, and he simply obliges with a smile. He’s played by Adriano Tardiolo, who has never acted before and thus delivers one of those extraordinary, other-worldly performances untrammelled by training or thinking. He just IS.

Now, I don’t want to go any further with plot. Peter Bradshaw in his Guardian review ruins the whole surprise of this film. Suffice to say, all is not what it seems and there’s a brilliant change of pace and locale in the second half, that could be biblical or ghostly, or real. 

I love the film. It’s just what you want from world cinema, a journey into another realm, a meditation that’s still intriguing and exciting, with layers of thought about exploitation and innocence, capitalism and collectivism, all told with a rough beauty as well as that uniquely Italian baroque exoticism – it’s a real trip.

You can see my interview with Alice and Adriano and get a taster of the film in my piece with Cinemoi from Cannes last year.