A film that starts in the tradition of Italian neo-realism, “Happy as Lazzaro,” which was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and now goes into commercial release, veers into a highly imaginative mode that escalates its creativity and establishes the work from Italy as among the year’s best. It stands as an important social commentary on class differences and exploitation. In addition, there is an implicit Biblical reference.
Alice Rohrwacher has done a superb job of direction from her screenplay, and she has as her leading actor the non-professional Adriano Tardiolo giving a riveting and deeply sympathetic performance in the title role of a young man with an ethereal screen-worthy face. The film is set in the past, with Lazzaro willing to cheerfully take on any task demanded of him in the community of tobacco farm workers exploited by the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi). The men and women are treated as serf-like sharecroppers.
The story is inspired by a 1980s case of a rich noblewoman, who became known as the tobacco queen and similarly exploited workers who had been cruelly kept ignorant of the fact that such sharecropping had been outlawed. The film details the daily lives of the characters under the Marchesa’s rule until they are rescued when officials discover the illegal abuse.
Before that plot development, we see the Marchesa’s layabout son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), making a friend of the impressionable Lazzaro, whom he personally exploits. Lazzaro thinks this is a sincere friendship. Eventually (spoiler here) tragedy strikes as Lazzaro tumbles to his death from a high cliff.
Anyone familiar with the Biblical story of Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raises from the dead, can make the film’s connection as it jumps to the present when Lazzraro appears looking exactly as he did in his youth, much to the amazement of those who, now older, encounter him and are flabbergasted.
The film, rich in imagination, takes on a new dimension. Some of those freed from their lot as sharecroppers now are scrounging for a living in various ways. The Marchesa, having been exposed, is reduced to poverty. Lazzaro encounters the older Tancredi (now played by Tommaso Ragno) and a bizarre episode unfolds, demonstrating the moral superiority of those who had been the sharecroppers.
Rohrwacher’s film rises to become very special in its religion-tinged allegorical outcome. Scene after scene is superbly photographed (cinematography by Hélène Louvart). Perhaps the film could be trimmed a bit, but “Happy as Lazzaro” emerges as a film that may haunt your memory and engender special respect for this rare accomplishment. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 28, 2018.