Italy’s newest film sensation, ‘Happy as Lazzaro’ (or ‘Lazzaro Felice’) has had tongues wagging ever since it won Best Screenplay at Cannes 2018. The story is simple: on a rural sharecropping estate called Inviolata, teenager Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) leads a placid existence, overworked and underpaid along with three generations of Italians trading in tobacco and other goods. To leave is to face punishment; the hive mentality of the village and its workers borders on cult-like. At first, the praise for the film seems justified as it takes the form of the Italian cinematic answer to slice of life masterpiece ‘Roma’ and tackling similar themes of power imbalances in the working class. But make no mistake, there is something much more unusual to ‘Happy as Lazzaro’ than meets the eye.
The term Inviolata derives from “inviolable”: to never be broken or untouched. This acts as a description for the village both in how its habitants treat it and how 'Happy as Lazzaro' frames it. Shot on film with frayed edges and natural lighting, the vast plains fill the camera, allowing for a glorious backdrop that justifies why Lazzaro and his fellow workers might not want to leave, even if they could. What the film also does quite well is frame its landscapes in a way that feel as empty as Lazzaro’s face, while also feeling tempting and yearning to be explored. Much of the action takes place on the edge of frames, allowing the focus to be on the isolated setting itself. One moment early on in the film is particularly magical, involving tall, lush greenery that surrounds and obscures the protagonist’s face in a way that demands focus on his handsome yet boy-like features.
Anyone familiar with the promotional material will have no doubt seen Lazzaro’s cherubic, rather expressionless face. He is primed for exploitation and cruelty, it seems, a pure symbol of innocence of unexplained origin amongst the dirty clothes and rough hands of his fellow workers. Surely there must be something else bubbling behind those blue eyes. Spending much of the first act of the film as a secondary character constantly being given work to complete, Lazzaro’s whirlwind and risky friendship with Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) changes all that. Tardiolo exercises an incredible level of restraint in his performance that allows him to delve deeper into his character's desires and inner workings without betraying it on his face, even as he is beaten by a group of civilians. While no doubt the mark of a talented actor, Lazzaro’s blank slate is both the film's best friend and worst enemy.
As ‘Happy as Lazzaro’ bends away from the exploitative drama of the first act and leans into the fantastical, the film deliberately splits itself into two halves, as a cliff dive (I mean this literally) launches audiences into a fable-style, surrealist story that acts as part allegory, part satire. Admittedly, it is wonderful to look at, but unfortunately not as compelling as it wants to be. Through such a major shift, it would be helpful to have a more concrete figure of theme and meaning to tie the two halves of the film together, but instead we have Lazzaro. Unchanged both physically and spiritually despite the massive switch in gears the film takes on, what the character is actually meant to represent to the audience is left far too ambiguous for the two halves of the film to really work. Perhaps, like the film, Lazzaro himself is taking on double meanings and representations. Perhaps he is more symbol than character, a move that may alienate audiences in its abstractness.
‘Happy as Lazzaro’ comes and goes like an airy fable but doesn’t make as much of an impact as it wants to.
‘Happy as Lazzaro’ comes and goes like an airy fable but doesn’t make as much of an impact as it wants to. Through a lack of convincing and earned pivot, its first half in realism drags down the escapism it yearns for in its second half. Its ambition is to be commended and is definitely a film that deserves to be seen, but as a whole is just verging on greatness.