Italian film “Happy as Lazzaro” initially baffles us with its odd but realistic background during its first half and then moves onto a stranger territory during its second half. At first, the movie looks like a humorous fable about one simple but decent lad, but then, after a sudden unexpected narrative turn in the middle of the story, it eventually presents itself as an idiosyncratic mix of social drama and fairy tale, and I was quite impressed by that in the end.
During the opening part, we gradually get to know a small community residing and working in a tobacco farm, which is located in some remote rural region. As a young man and his friends perform a serenade in front of a house packed with many people including a young woman whom that young man loves, the movie looks around here and there in that big house, and we cannot help but wonder about the period background of the movie as observing many details which look quite old-fashioned to us. While these people have electricity, there are only a few light bulbs in their shabby house, and it looks like they have been stuck in their small world for many decades without much change.
When the manager representing the owner of the tobacco farm comes on the next day, he condescendingly treats the community people as if they were medieval peasants. He reminds them that they are still in debt as usual despite their hard work, and they all conform to this without much complain. When the aforementioned young couple later tries to leave the community for their better future, the manager warns that they must get the permission from the owner first, and the couple has no choice but to give up their plan.
Meanwhile, we come to notice a lad named Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), and then we observe how happily this good-natured dude does whatever he is asked to do by others around him. As the owner cynically points out while watching him from the distance, he is constantly exploited as being at the bottom of his class system, but he has no anger or grudge about that at all, and we come to observe him with amusement instead of pity while he consistently remains simple and decent as a sort of holy fool.
And then there comes a significant change via Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), the owner’s willful young son who is going to spend some time in the mansion belonging to the owner. As your typical urban lad, he becomes quite bored right from when he arrives in the farm, and then he comes to befriend Lazzaro, who is certainly eager to do anything for him and also shows him his little private place somewhere around the top of a nearby mountain. When Tancredi later attempts to fake his own kidnapping for having some rebellious fun, Lazzaro willingly goes along with Tancredi’s plan, and he becomes more loyal to Tancredi after Tancredi jokingly suggests that they could be half-brothers.
As everyone else in the community looks for Tancredi, we get a series of amusing moments including the one involved with a pack of wolves somewhere out there, but then the movie jolts us when something shocking and tragic happens to Lazzaro. I will not describe that incident in detail here, but I can tell you instead that the movie effortlessly shifts itself onto a different mode as Lazzaro’s community is inevitably turned upside down after Tancredi’s plan goes wrong more than he and Lazzaro every imagined.
Anyway, the second half of the movie puts Lazzaro in a situation quite alien to him in many aspects. Baffled by how things have changed a lot during his longtime absence, he comes across a couple of guys when he is aimlessly wandering around in the owner’s mansion, and they subsequently take him to a big modern city. He soon encounters his community people who were relocated to the city after that incident, and they all surprised to see how he still looks same as before even though a considerable amount of time has passed since that incident.
While occasionally implying Lazzaro’s ghostly status, the movie continues to engage us via several nice moments to be savored. There is a funny scene where Lazzaro gladly shows his community people some edible plants to eat, and there later comes a fateful moment when Lazzaro happens to encounter Tancredi, who surely looks quite different after getting older. It seems they can be friends again, but, not so surprisingly, Tancredi soon shows what a lousy human being he has become, and we get a very awkward moment when Lazzaro and a group of his community people try to visit Tancredi’s current residence at one point later in the story.
Nevertheless, Lazzaro does not lose any of his benign innocence, and Adriano Tardiolo, a young non-professional actor who never acted before appearing in this film, is credible in his beautiful natural performance shining with genuine goodwill and gentle humanity. In addition, he is supported well by several good performers including Luca Chikovani, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergi López, and Alba Rohrwacher, and Rohrwacher, who is incidentally the sister of director/writer Alice Rohrwacher, is particularly wonderful as a jaded but good-hearted character who comes to care about Lazzaro a lot.
Although I have not watched Alice Rohrwacher’s previous films “Heavenly Body” (2011) and “The Wonders” (2014) yet, “Happy as Lazzaro”, which won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year, shows me that she is a talented filmmaker to watch, and I enjoyed its offbeat ambience which is established well on the screen thanks to cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who previously worked in “Beach Rats” (2017). Although the movie falters a bit around its finale due to heavy-handed symbolism, it is still one of more memorable films of this year, and I am glad that I could watch it before the end of this year.