Happy as Lazzaro is a concept of eternal purity.
“Lazzaro is ‘to be in the world’, it is the possibility for men to be good” the director, Alice Rohrwacher, states. The film premiered in the competition in the afternoon, and was greeted by 13 minutes of applause, received by an emotional cast and production team (Tempesta Film and Rai Cinema) attending. It is a film that – as Alice Rohrwacher puts it – “was only completed on Wednesday...”
The film talks about a tobacco scandal, following the deception conceived by the Marquise (Nicoletta Braschi), a woman of wicked gentleness, who for a long time made her 54 workers believe that sharecropping (abolished by law in Italy in 1982) was still in force. Among them is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a twenty-year old with a pure and naive heart like that of a child, who finds friendship for the first time in Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), a boy his age, who is completely absorbed by his freedom and distorted fantasies, not evil but no doubt in contrast with Lazzaro’s spirit. This is the story’s lead.
The press conference that Alice Rohrwacher held with the Italian press immediately after the premier began by remembering Ermanno Olmi, who’s poetic and bucolic, as well as spiritual heritage, can be felt throughout the film: “a master and a teacher, and artisan in this trait, that I wasn’t in time to show the film to. There is no perspective I miss more than his at this moment”, Alice said.
“I finished the film four days ago, with no expectations. It was a bet, we did our best. It’s kind of weird, it’s very free”. The film embraces multiple universes, among which the religious one: “in fact it is also a religious film, in the prehistoric meaning of the term. The story of San Francesco is not expressly portrayed but it is present, and was inspired by a children’s book by Chiara Frugoni, that had enchanted me because there is no moral dialogue between Francesco and the wolf, to make the animal good, the animal simply approaches the saint while he is asleep and doesn’t eat him because he feels that he is in peace, and he won’t hurt him. This had to do with the film’s life and the character of Antonia (Alba Rohrwacher). It was very hard to overcome the moment when Lazzaro falls – he literally precipitates – and perhaps only by moving away suddenly and adopting a different narrative style we could overcome that situation, this is why we thought of this tale. So the spiritual dimension is very important in it’s concrete and material form: it is a spiritual film but it is also a film of bodies, places, smells, labor”, very human, practical elements.
The story of Happy as Lazzaro takes place in a suspended time, that we understand to be the present, but perhaps not always a strictly contemporary time, as it is at times eternal: “The world be deal with – sais the director – is relatively recent, set in a near past, although throughout the film there is a time shift. The sharecropping system ended only 36 years ago in Italy, despite being a feudal, medieval system. We were able to reconstruct this time and this world because it is a relatively recent memory. We were able to find these 54 farm workers of the Inviolata – the place where part of the film is set -, workers who are now agricultural laborers, with a memory. This is why I decided to make this film now, catching a changing world, because when else could one make a film on the end of sharecropping”.
The Rohrwacher sisters come from a family history of agriculture and apiculture, as portrayed in the previous film The Wonders and despite Happy as Lazzaro may appear to hint at that universe: “This has nothing to do with our experience – sais Alice Rohrwacher, speaking of Lazzaro’s world – No doubt it is a world who’s end we were, and are, able to get a glimpse of”.However, Lazzaro’s world is Lazzaro. He is played on screen by Adriano Tardiolo, with big and shiny blue eyes, exactly the eyes of the character, with the same enchanted and crystal quality. He delicately states that: “this is my first time making a film. I met Alice by chance, in school, were she was auditioning students for the parts, but I hadn’t even participated”, in fact “it was a backwards audition”, the director points out. “Chiara Polizzi, the cating director, met Adriano in school, and when we asked him if he wanted to make the film he said ‘no thanks’. To convince him to accept we rehearsed for a month and at the end of that time he could accept of refuse, and he said yes”.
Who can we define as Lazzaro today? “To speak of Lazzaro – Rohrwacher explains – means to talk of the people who normally have never been in the spotlight, the last in line, not wanting to disturb. Although this film deals strongly with the ideas of good and bad, almost in a fable like manner, the Lazzari have no opinion of this, in all this entanglement of good and bad. There is judgment towards the story, but fortunately Lazzaro doesn’t judge those he meets, he has an unconditioned trust in people”.
Along side Lazzaro, the film’s particular character, the marquis Alfonsina de Luna, played by Nicoletta Braschi: “I tried to give the marquis the disgust I felt for her and I hope this emerges, the fact that she in some way is disgusted by herself. I am very grateful to Alice for having asked me to play an antagonist part to Lazzaro’s. She is a character that has truly existed, leaving a trace in all the other characters. Her meanness has destroyed the lives of many”. The characters are people, the workers, and hence incarnate the present time, the present world, in which Lazzaro is necessarily immersed, up to the gratuitous violence of the epilogue: “Elsa Morante use to say that ‘we have gone from the early medieval ages to the second medieval age’, so, to put it in the words of one of our literary geniuses – Alice sais – the film attempts to portray the moment of passage from a historical medieval time to a more human one, of disintegration and constant struggle. Everything changes and everything remains the same, and in some way Happy as Lazzaro for me, was meant to be a classical story, almost melodramatic, that could then be broken. This is what has happened to our country: bitterness and beauty were there and still are, but with a few changes. This is not to say, however, that – when the wolf leaves the city – we should go back to rural life: the wolf runs, it runs uphill... I think that each viewer must search for his or her own meaning of this image”.
In the case of Alice Rohrwacher this is “her meaning”, it is a female point of view, at this time at the heart of the debate, in and outside of the cinema world, on women’s rights, and that according to the director is also at the center of the film: “these are two parallel threads, not overlapping. We have presented the film both as women and as people: I think the selection is a selection of points of view of the world, and not a male and female distinction, like there is for the toilets in elementary schools. Naturally we, Alba included, support this stance: yesterday we felt a real and symbolic, important emotion, 82 women representing the 82 female film directors that have presented films at the Cannes Film Festival, this is an image that speaks and that must be able to speak...”
Lazzaro is not a new story, as Alice Rohrwacher admits, and had no pretense of being so: “it is a recurrent story, but I think it can be told in a different way”, and supporting this, the director talks about the technical aspect of the film: “we worked on it in full frame, this can be seen as an aesthetical, slightly vintage, choice, but in fact we chose to apply a matte box for Lazzaro, leaving the frame open, because this openness was what we experienced in making the film”.