Director: Alice Rohrwacher. Starring: Adriano Tardiolo, Alba Rohrwacher, David Bennent, Luca Chikovani, Nicoletta Braschi, Tommaso Ragno. Cert: 12A, 127m
In a rural village in what seems to be 19th-century Italy, 54 impoverished sharecroppers toil on tobacco farmland. They are grubby and overworked. Twenty-six of them share a home and a single light bulb. But there are more insidious ways in which they are being kept in the dark. For one thing – as the occasional glimpse of a Walkman or a clunky mobile phone tips us off to – it is actually the Nineties, and sharecropping has been illegal for decades. The villagers’ boss, the Marchesa de Luna, has hidden that from them.
That is just the first twist in this extraordinary work of magical neorealism from director Alice Rohrwacher. The 37-year-old has followed 2014’s The Wonders with a film that’s somehow as modest as it is ludicrously ambitious – a palate-pleasing cocktail of Dogtooth, Home Alone and the Tilda Swinton epic Orlando. Depending on how you squint at its grainy, sun-parched vistas, shot on Super 16 by the French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, Happy as Lazzaro could be a biting social commentary, a religious parable or a beguiling, supernatural tale. Perhaps it is all three.
The film’s beating heart is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo, a newcomer who was discovered when a casting director wandered into his economics class), a guileless young man with big, blinking eyes and the kind of generosity that is endlessly exploited – by his fellow farmhands and the marchesa alike. “Human beings are like animals,” the latter tells her son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani). “Set them free and they realise they are slaves locked in their own misery. Right now they suffer, but they don’t know. I exploit them, they exploit that poor man. It’s a chain reaction. It can’t be stopped.”
Eventually, though, it is stopped – when Tancredi, growing disillusioned with his mother’s amorality, cooks up a scheme to fake his own kidnapping. He does so with the unwitting help of Lazzaro, who happily follows even the most insulting of requests. “I don’t suppose you could cut yourself?” asks Tancredi, wanting to drip blood on his own phoney ransom note but unwilling to hurt himself. “Of course,” says Lazzaro, happily – and without hesitation – piercing his own skin.
The plan backfires, setting off a different kind of chain reaction – one which hurtles the narrative into an entirely different sphere. To explain any more would be to spoil the film’s second-act magic trick. It might have backfired in lesser hands, but Rohrwacher carries it out effortlessly.
Only one other film this year has attempted to pull off a twist as audacious as this. But the dreadful Serenity did so with self-indulgent bells and whistles; Happy as Lazzaro does so with a quiet beauty.
Happy as Lazzaro is released in UK cinemas on 5 April
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