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Film Review: Happy as Lazzaro

11 April 19 words: Adam Wells

Alice Rohrwacher's beautiful story of the good-hearted peasant Lazzaro is back at Broadway Cinema...

Director: Alice Rohrwacher

Starring: Adriano Tardiolo, Alba Rohrwacher, David Bennet

Running time: 128 mins

On the face of it, the newest release from acclaimed Italian director Alice Rohrwacher appears to be a pleasant affair, following the inhabitants of a tobacco farm in the countryside. However, what starts out as a simple tale following the titular Lazzaro and his young master Tancredi soon spirals into an enigmatic, magical-realist fable about slavery, and the seemingly insurmountable divisions caused by wealth and class disparity. Shot beautifully on Super 16mm, the look of the film creates a feeling of timelessness, so much so that it’s genuinely shocking when, early on, someone pulls out a mobile phone. As soon becomes clear, Lazzaro and his family are ‘sharecroppers’, farmers owned by the Marquis, in a system which, unbeknownst to them, has long been outlawed as barbaric.

While not necessarily as happy as the title suggests, Lazzaro himself is certainly content, spending his days selflessly and politely helping the other workers on the farm like the Paddington Bear of rural Italy. Played with wide-eyed innocence by Adriano Tardiolo, astonishingly in his very first acting credit, he’s the sort of character you want to reach in and hug, and it’s heart-breaking to see him being so readily exploited by everyone around him. Lazzaro, it is clear, is only happy because he is naïve, a quality which constantly finds itself under threat from the harshness of reality. The real tragedy is not just that Lazzaro is selfless, but that said selflessness is informed by a lifetime of servitude, so ingrained as to be his defining characteristic.

In coming to terms with this shame of the past, Rohrwacher approaches national history with a level of introspection and self-interrogation rarely found in films about British history

In portraying the other sharecroppers, Rohrwacher manages to avoid the condescending trope of ‘poor folk with hearts of gold’. Instead, Lazzaro’s fellow sharecroppers are a living, breathing community, just as ready to exploit him as the owner of the land is to do likewise to them. Even Tancredi, the young, punk-ish son of the Marquis, who makes an ostensible show of his kindness to Lazzaro, referring to him as his half-brother, is more like a tourist in his poverty. As he lives in his own idyll in the mountains, he complains that Lazzaro won’t stay and entertain him instead of working, and risks nothing himself in the plan to fake his own kidnapping. Tancredi takes advantage of Lazzaro so naturally that it is possible that he’s convinced even himself that he has Lazzaro’s best interests at heart.

The devastating truth at the centre of the film is that Lazzaro is treated so horrendously by those he considers closest to him. Beneath the pastoral iconography of Happy as Lazzaro lies the rotten core of exploitation, exposing the ‘simpler time’ of the Italian past for what it really was – slavery. In coming to terms with this shame of the past, Rohrwacher approaches national history with a level of introspection and self-interrogation rarely found in films about British history. Not only this, but the film investigates the insidious nature of classism in the modern world in a way that makes it a vital – if challenging – watch.

Did you know? Adriano Tardiolo (Lazzaro) was scouted in a public high school in Orvieto, concluding a search that involved more than a thousand other boys of the same age. Tardiolo had never acted before, but was convinced to accept the role after getting to know Alice Rohrwacher.

Happy as Lazzaro is screening at Broadway Cinema until Sunday 14 April

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