Film Review: Happy as Lazzaro (Italy, 2018) is magical realism par excellence

Over the recent years, it has come to my attention that some of the most problematic films that have attained a lot of critical derision have come from films that explore the trope of magical realism. Recent efforts such as Collateral Beauty, Life Itself and The Book of Henry have tried to be life-affirming by examining themes that make the world remarkably human through a point of view that is both fantastical, yet sincere.

Unfortunately, those films have failed because they are incredibly misguided with their handling of tone as well as the lack of plausibility that is so disengaging, that no human being would want to relate to any of the characters on-screen.

The latest example that explores the trope is Alice Rohrwacher‘s Happy as Lazzaro. Rohrwacher is a Cannes critical darling, after winning awards and acclaim at Cannes for her films The Wonders, Heavenly Body and even for Lazzaro, garnering the award for Best Screenplay. Will her directorial skill, will her third feature-length project be a successful hat trick?

Adriano Tardiolo stars as the titular character Lazzaro, a kind, simple-minded peasant who lives in a small farm, run in the Inviolata estate by the notorious Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), also known as the “Queen of Cigarettes” and for her exploitation of the workers. Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) is the marquis of the estate and he befriends Lazzaro, after seeing him work at his home for the first time.

Sick and tired of witnessing the cruel and inhumane treatment of the workers, Tancredi decides to defy her mother by orchestrating his own kidnapping, with the help of Lazzaro. From thereon, their bond gets stronger until a strange, lupine happening occurs, which sends Lazzaro in a period that bends time and space, affecting all those he holds sacred.

With only the plot thread involving labour exploitation and the contrasts between the rich and the poor to muddle over, the synopsis does sound the vague, but the final result thankfully pays off in what is essentially both a warm, wispy tale of magical realism as well as an incisive commentary of the modern world.

The pacing is quite glacial — while it may fit the film’s dreamy aesthetic, it will put people off, especially during the intriguing, yet languid first act. But due to a second-act plot turn, the film takes on a different path that brings past and present into perspective, that provides a lot of food for thought.

Themes such as friendships, social status, poverty, the harsh realities of the human condition under capitalism are shown through the eyes of a childlike innocent. Since these themes are being filtered through Tardiolo’s understated performance and Rohrwacher’s confident direction, the storytelling takes on a subtly fantastical viewpoint that it becomes amusingly satirical and gently humane.

Aiding the fantastical feel is the beautiful Super 16mm cinematography by Hélène Louvart, which adds an ethereal feel in the rural settings, while accentuating the tactile visuals when the story takes place in the dilapidated settings in the city. The same goes for the lack of musical score, which adds to the verisimilitude without dulling the magical feel.

The performances from the cast are all stellar, with an effective Luca Chikovani, who conveys rebellion and self-righteous anger with aplomb; Alba Rohrwacher conveys paternal love and survival instinct convincingly, Sergi Lopez brings an appealingly gruff presence as the veteran thief and Nicoletta Braschi manages to be believably pompous as the wealthy matriarch.

But the film relies most on Adriano Tardiolo, who gives a wonderfully enigmatic performance. Although his character is essentially a reactive one as well as a catalyst for the story to take place, what makes his performance so effective is that he manages to provide a perfect balance between innocence (that is almost unbelievable in comparison to the people around him) and mystery (thanks to his lack of backstory).

On paper, it can be seen as annoyingly cutesy or frustratingly vague (like a cipher), Tardiolo brings life to the character, which makes it easy for the audience to care for him, particularly when he gains a sense of agency in the final act.

Overall, Happy as Lazarro is a memorable and compelling experience that manages to blend fantasy and reality in a way that is both beautiful, satirical and enlightening all at once. Highly recommended.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Happy as Lazzaro is showing in select cinemas now.

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