Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature film, Lazzaro Felice—or Happy as Lazzaro in its English translation—which premiered at Cannes in 2018, follows a group of poverty-stricken tobacco farmers living in the Italian countryside. This initial premise was inspired by a newspaper clipping Rohrwacher read as a teenager. In the course of its 130 minutes, the film seamlessly transforms from a social realist tragicomedy to an ethereal folktale for the modern age.
The story unfolds frame by frame with each scene as beautiful as a classical pastoral painting. Rohrwacher has said that the color palette and imagery were inspired by early religious art, and it is in fact difficult not to read the film without having some sense that it is a religious fable. Lazzaro, the film’s protagonist, is so good-hearted that it almost hurts. As his fellow sharecroppers, and anyone else in his vicinity, make fun and take continual advantage of Lazzaro’s trusting nature, a tension simmers and builds throughout the film, cresting in the most unexpected of ways. In the hands of a different filmmaker this classically inspired exploration of virtue and exploitation could easily become a trite moral tale, but Rohrwacher’s attention to detail and commitment to subtlety create a piece of filmmaking that embodies the sincerity of her protagonist, and urges viewers hearts to reflect on the strength of the human spirit.
For her cast, Rohrwacher used a combination of professional and non-actors. The tobacco plants harvested in the film, the crew grew on their own, planting months before filming began. She is a director committed to layers of authenticity that are imperceptibly reflected in the final project, and though her story becomes more fantastical as it progresses, there is not a feeling of artifice at any moment in the film.
It is rare to encounter a contemporary film that feels so instantaneously classic, committed to both form and content in such a thoroughly rigorous way. Happy as Lazzaro stands strong next to any of the traditional filmmaking canon—a remarkable feat for 21st century filmmaking.