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Thread: HAPPY AS LAZZARO/LAZZARO FELICE (Alice Roherwacher 2018) - NYFF

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    HAPPY AS LAZZARO/LAZZARO FELICE (Alice Roherwacher 2018) - NYFF



    150% Italian

    Exactly what Alice Rohrwacher is doing in this, her third feature (after Corpo Celeste in 2011 and The Wonders in 2014), isn't always entirely evident. She's clearly drawing on elements of both of those earlier works, and evoking classics of Italian cinema that include De Sica, Zavattini and the Taviani brothers. This movie is guaranteed 150% Italian in style and content, steeped in the tradition, yet unlike anything else: an original, whether we like it or not.

    The director has her own story to tell. She weaves her own distinctive element of magic realism. Complicated things are happening, even if they feel unfocused through most of the first half. As in the last film, about bee keepers, a chaotic, but purposeful, rural agricultural life is going on, with other added layers of meaning.

    At the center holding things together is the Lazzaro of the title. The untrained non-actor who plays him, Adriano Tardiolo, is a miracle of casting and wrangling. He moves and stands and looks exactly right at every point. He conveys grace and logic, a sense of stillness and inner peace. His mere presence gradually begins later in the film to compensate for the longeurs of the first half and the shocks of the second - for not all is well here; but there is that which arouses our forgiveness and momentary awe. Though she stumbles along the way - maybe to stumble is her way - Rohrwacher is also advancing along a path that leads somehow, mysteriously, toward Italian cinematic greatness.

    The basic plot comes from a real Eighties news item. Somewhere explicitly called Inviolata (Italian writers think it, despite its isolation, perhaps not that far from Rome) fifty-some contadini, victims of a "grande inganno" (a great deception) are being forced by a wicked noblewoman called the Marchesa Alfonsino de Luna to farm tobacco in a slave-like sharecropper system whose illegality they're kept in the dark about. They called the Marchesa "the Queen of Cigarettes." There is a temporal dissonance no one notices. The corners of the images are curved, an "antiquing" effect, as if caressing the film's cinematic nostalgia. It's as if people not so long ago are walking in and out of a Neorealist film (by Visconti, De Santis, or Olmi), or the middle ages - one that meanders a little too much. Rohrwacher has a lively cinematic way of making the peasant world come to life, but not enough is actually happening, and the nostalgia is lazy sometimes.

    In the foreground always is Lazzaro, a slightly frumpy, yet radiant figure, a man-boy so innocent he could be an idiot, except he understands orders and instantly (and happily and sweetly) responds to them, carry this, carry that, make me some coffee. These abject Italian peasants have Lazzaro to order around; he has no one. His face shines with sweat, ringed with curly beatific hair and bright happy innocent eyes that seem radiant. He is at once a wise fool and a secular saint. There is magic here.

    But is Rohrwacher glorifying a crime? No, rather she is highlighting, if a bit laboriously, the essential contradiction described by Manohla Dargis in her Cannes report: this world is one that really is simultaneously both "emotionally sustaining" and "grossly exploitative."

    Then the Marquesa's lean, stylish, bleach-blond and disaffected teenage son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) hides away in the hills, taking the pliant Lazzaro with him to act as his accomplice in a faked kidnapping scheme to con his mother out of money. This fails, but Tancredi charms the simple boy with the fantasy he takes literally. He says since his father slept with many village girls, and Lazzaro doesn't know who his actual parents are, the two of them are probably "half-brothers." Even while hiding away, Tancredi keeps changing outfits. Lazzaro's never-changing pants and shirt go beyond poverty to convey a symbolic, magical status. His totem is the wolf. His name (Lazarus) will shortly take on its traditional meaning, and his embodiment of magic and transcendence will become definitive.

    At midpoint, everything in the picture turns around. Lazzaro undergoes a transformation, while the whole local world, "Inviolata" no more, is exposed: police come, and its discovery leads to its annihilation. Time is disjointed, moving forward more for some than others, while Lazzaro changes not at all, but enters the new urban world the contadini have been transplanted to. Time passes. They now must steal and hustle to survive on the streets of Turin (or is it Milan? sequences were shot in both cities). Lazzaro arrives later, aged not a day. Offering to help, he's alternately seen as useless, and a unique resource. Carrying a symbolic slingshot, he seeks Tancredi. And he finds "Tancredi adulto" (Tommaso Ragno), an elegant, gray-haired man grown thicker and sweeter and now, with a touching, threadbare noblesse oblige, honoring the friendship with Lazzaro that in youth he seemed to mock.

    Obviously the peasants aren't better off in the city to which their illusory "liberation" has taken them (not a very surprising insight). Their situation is only more desperate. They raise money selling objects from the Marchesa's estate that go for a pittance on the street. At least they got potatoes at home: now they're reduced to little bags of chips. Tancredi has a nice coat, but is reduced to nothing too. He invites Lazzaro to dinner, and the youth brings the whole little remaining gang, a sad and sorry pilgrimage.

    This final sequence is far more consequential than anything in the first half. As it progresses, the aura of holiness around Lazzaro, out of his native element, grows more evident. Rohrbacher channels magic moments from a variety of classic Italian films. In the country, we felt the Taviani brothers' gentle, meandering presence. In the city it's a grimmer, speedier post-War Neorealism that takes hold. But Rohrwacher "transcends the tradition" in her own way - a tradition that includes Fellini, as it did in the very beginning of Corpo Celeste.

    The magical realism surrounding the final sequence, when beautiful music dies in a cold cathedral dominated by mean nuns (the organ keys can make no sound) and flies out behind the evicted holy band of poor peasants (naughty and nice, they're all sanctified now) , and Lazzaro is quietly transfigured through a wolf that was his personal spirit - this is the director's own. As in the previous two films, images are constantly enhanced by the fine 16mm photography of French dp Hélène Louvart, edited by Nelly Quettier. Not everyone will have the patience or understanding for all this, but it is a remarkable amalgam, explaining how the scenario, its vision and its patient realization, could have won a big award at Cannes.

    Happy As Lazzaro/Lazzaro felice, 125 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes, where it won the Best Screenplay award, and was shown at nearly two dozen other international festivals, including Munich, New York, and London, winning nearly a dozen other awards and nominations. US theatrical release 30 Nov. 2018, also on Netflix. Metascore 86. Watched on Netflix for this review 26 Dec. 2018.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-29-2018 at 10:51 AM.


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