I am Lazarus

Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felipe, Alice Rohrwacher, 2018)

This may be one of those films — like Border — that the less you know about in advance, the better. It is distinctly a film of two halves, edging around one kind of fantasy or another, and I will sound the spoiler klaxon before mentioning the second half.

In the isolated and dilapidated Italian village of Inviolata, fifty four men, women and children grow tobacco and other cash crops, and once a month their overseer works out what their crop is worth and deducts their expenses.

Oddly enough they are always in debt.

Every so often the village’s owner, Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi) comes down in a sort of royal visit, demanding more service. Her son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), dog in hand, comes down with her, bored with the countryside, bored with the lack of mobile signal, indifferent to the exploitation and utterly self-centred. He latches onto the titular Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) as Sancho to his Quixote.

Here we have a microcosm of capitalism — the Marquess de Luna exploits her workers who all exploit Lazzaro. He is happy to serve — fetching food, coffee or Grandma — apparently an orphan, always smiling, always ready to take over someone’s shift, even if this means staying up all night to watch for wolves. He is guileless and sinless, a holy fool. His wide eyes and floppy hair make him look perpetually at ease and relaxed, unafraid and unannoyed. He cannot see his slavery. He also has his moments of staring into the void — perhaps narcolepsy, but who could blame him for falling asleep on his feet?

The presence of cars, mobile phones and Walkmen puts us in the 1980s or 1990s, rather than the fairy tale time it could be — there is electricity, but they have to share a light bulb. There are hints of magic, of something more — the workers seem to be able to whistle up the wind, to threaten, to punish … but they never take the opportunity to escape or fight back.

And then…

SPOILERS

Well, presumably the main character is actually called Lazarus, as he is reborn or travels in time or Rip Van Winkles to an abandoned estate that is being burgled by people he doesn’t recognise. He walks, and he walks, and he walks, and he accidentally foils a hold up by the same burglars … and he ends up at a city, much closer to our present day.

By then, we’ve had much more insistence that he’s a saint, and thus capable of miracles. He is reunited with some of De Luna’s sharecroppers, who eke out a living foraging and conning antique buyers and pondering whether they wouldn’t be better on the estate. Lazzaro is both a good talisman and again a convenient dogsbody. And then he is reunited with another face from the past and there is a moment of hope…

But he is a holy fool, as we see from the film’s last two set pieces, one fantastical within a church and the other more mundane, within a bank. Lazzaro the holy fool is rejected by organised religion and may be chewed up by organised capitalism. Within the countryside he may find a niche, but in the city he can only find miraculous fruits or the margins — or olives outside the bank.

I’ve not seen either of Rohrwacher’s earlier feature films and this seems to be the first to be centred on a male character, who is utterly convincing and charming in the role. I assume that most of the share croppers are played by amateur actors, with professionals taking over in the second half of the film. The mixture works, as does the sense of fable, which never quite romanticises Italian peasant life and certainly not a world off grid.

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