He’s staring into the void again.
Writer/director Alice Rohrwacher asks an interesting question with Lazzaro felice [Happy as Lazzaro]. How would we treat a saint? Would we acknowledge his/her goodness and understand their grace to be something to mirror? Or would we scoff at their innocence to call them naive, their loyalty to call them stupid, and their charity to call them a pushover? You’d like to think the former and yet it doesn’t take much of a history lesson to prove the latter. There’s a reason a majority of our pure-hearted heroes end up lauded after martyring themselves. And when the most famous of them all (Jesus Christ) serves as the central figure of a religion spewing more hate these days than compassion, it starts to no longer be a question of which.
So she tests us with the first half of her film by presenting Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) as the workhorse of a small and impoverished tobacco farm caught under the thumb of the “Queen of Cigarettes” (Nicoletta Braschi‘s Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna). As she runs these sharecroppers ragged while sitting in her ivory tower of fancy cheese and pristine etiquette, they seek any reprieve they can by yelling “Lazzaro!” until he arrives with a smile and willingness to complete whatever task they decide to pawn off on him. The process is ubiquitous enough to become an act as natural to them as breathing. He’s the strong, indefatigable type who genuinely seems to enjoy assisting his community. You ask him to do something and he does it—sarcasm or not.
Do you dismiss him as an unfortunate soul unversed in mankind’s selfish greed; a ticking time bomb awaiting the last straw before igniting into a white-hot flame of retribution? I did. I’m sure you will too despite thinking the others laughing behind his back is mean since pity and empathy aren’t the same. And when he finds himself caught under the manipulative spell of the “Queen’s” son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), you cringe knowing the relationship can’t end well. The aristocrat wants the world and will connive his way towards getting it with his serf’s help while the latter devotedly agrees to every incriminating deed under the assumption they are friends. Either Lazzaro is going to go to prison for something he doesn’t understand or he’s going to snap.
Spoiler alert: it’s actually door number three wherein his cluelessness proves something wholly different. It starts with a chicken roaming free when one couldn’t feasibly be outside a sealed coop. We assume the man whose job it is to watch for a wolf that night let it out knowing someone would ask Lazzaro to put it back. That would in turn allow him to ask the boy to take his watch and thus ensure he’s asleep when Antonia (Agnese Graziani) opens the gate the next morning. It continues with Lazzaro getting a tip in the form of coffee grounds mere hours before Tancredi tells him he needs a coffee. A quick trip to a secret mountain alcove cements their friendship and the threads of divine providence take shape.
You’ve probably heard the film described as a fable, so this shouldn’t be surprising. Its subtlety at the start, however, is exactly that. Until Lazzaro chooses work over hanging out with a hidden Tancredi—leading the latter to get bored and try something more reckless than he had to unwittingly reveal a conspiracy we couldn’t even fathom despite weird anachronisms like cellphones in an environment that seems way too old to have them—you may have started to believe the fable talk was false. Only in hindsight do you remember those moments of destiny since the movie’s second half can’t let you ignore them anymore. That’s when an inexplicable time jump occurs with a re-born Lazzaro (wink, wink) taking his wholesome lead-by-example lessons to modern Italy.
Now Rohrwacher exposes the obvious results of her test. Gone is the desire to open her audience’s eyes to Lazzaro’s grace through his patience and virtue. Now she provides the truth of our collective contemporary paranoia. And why wouldn’t we feel that way in a world that lets the Marchesa do what she did for as long as she did it? Why wouldn’t we assume the worst in people when that’s all they seem willing to give? Lazzaro transforms from put upon slave laborer of slave laborers into a figure to be feared. And it’s not merely his being where he shouldn’t be either. He’s feared because of his kindness. Rather than see him as a saint to exploit, he becomes a devil harboring ulterior motives yet unleashed.
The final sequence becomes a scathing commentary on where we are today as a species—and it’s not just Italy, but America too. We use our resources to point out the bad instead of good, sowing seeds of hate instead of understanding. We’ve become a mob ready to attack because we’re constantly told “our way of life” is being threatened despite nothing of the sort. If anything we’re the ones threatening it because we’ve let ourselves grow hardened and skeptical. We automatically see people as searching for an angle without realizing our view of them in that way proves we’re finding our own advantage too. Lazzaro’s existence isn’t as a monster, but a mirror onto ourselves that shows what we could have been but chose not to be.
We’re the monsters wishing we could be like Antonia (her adult counterpart played by the filmmaker’s sister Alba Rohrwacher). She’s the exception proving the rule, but not for lack of trying. She remembers Lazzaro from her past and his smile despite everything that was done to him. And she sees where her life has gone in the other direction. Where she’s most different from the others, though, is how she uses his “mirror.” Rather than beat him up, she beats herself up. She doesn’t want him helping her schemes because his presence reinforces what she’s doing as wrong. It’s a stunningly simple characterization made powerful by not being as loud as those around her. Antonia becomes our symbol of hope. Sadly, as we see, it’s hardly enough.
courtesy of Netflix