Adriano Tardiolo, who plays the teenage title character in Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy As Lazzaro, has an amusingly unassertive presence: He’s just there, staring out of huge eyes in wonderment at … everything. With his soft, rounded features, Tardiolo suggests a rustic, beefier version of Elijah Wood’s baby-faced Frodo, except that he’s not a talker and he doesn’t seem to have any mission except being helpful. Lazzaro is happy, all right, but is he vacuously happy? Is he meant to be an allegorical figure — a simpleton saint? Part of the movie’s fun — and it is fun, once you adjust to its uninsistent rhythms — is how it forces you to share Lazarro’s go-along-to-get-along ebullience.
Happy As Lazzaro opens in a few theaters on the same day that it premieres on Netflix — which, I’m sad to say, is not the ideal way to see it. Movies that play best on TV have insistent rhythms, whereas this requires you to settle in and let yourself be enveloped by its settings. The place is a remote Italian village called Inviolata, but the period of the movie’s first half is unclear — it could be any time in the last 50 years. Inviolata is, indeed, inviolate, apart from a wolf who makes periodic raids on the poultry and becomes more and more symbolic. A bit under 50 people (adults and children) pick tobacco and sleep in a pair of crowded buildings, their routine broken only by visits from a rough little man who sternly assesses their productivity, and their employer, “the Marchesa” (Nicoletta Braschi), who arrives at her family manse with her tall, skinny, white-blond son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani).
Tancredi is as moody and restless as Lazarro is grounded, and the teenage boys form a bond that largely consists of the rich boy hatching schemes and the poor boy listening and trotting along behind him, up and down the parched, flax-colored hills.
Who are all these sharecroppers with their 19th-century peasant courtship rituals and no evident connection to the outside world? And why do they obey when the Marchesa’s underling says they can’t leave Inviolata? Are they slaves? The answers come in the jarringly different second hour, but the heart of Happy As Lazarro is in those hills. Rohrwacher and her cinematographer, Helene Louvart, hide their art, as good neorealists do. The landscape is rough, uneven, the dryish ground rising to great, veined rocks on which Tancredi surveys his peculiar kingdom. At one point, he enlists Lazarro in a plot to extract money from the Marchesa by faking a kidnapping, but nothing goes as planned and the movie takes a sudden and very long plunge into the fantastical. The movie is indeed an allegory, though also a barbed-wire satire with view of capitalism as dry as those hills.
The rich exploit the poor. The poor, their innocence shattered, scam the rich. The world is out of balance. The only equilibrium is in Lazzaro’s face.
I’d be lying if I said I’d worked out all the symbolism, especially the wolf with its telepathic connection to the protagonist. But the second half of Happy As Lazzaro — set in a chill, nondescript city — is full of lively zigs and zags. Alba Rohrwacher (the director’s sister) plays Antonia, the village girl who’s protective of Lazzaro until shame at her new livelihood overtakes her. Tommaso Ragno is the middle-aged Tancredi, his frame filled out by sloth and dissipation. But Lazzaro, being Lazzaro, accepts this Tancredi as he is, taking up Tancredi’s cause in a climax so violent and abrupt that it will satisfy few — but doesn’t ruin the movie overall. In the finale, we’re still pondering the nature of Lazzaro’s beatific little smile as he stares into the void. For some reason, he likes what he sees.