Happy as Lazzaro, written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher, feels more like a strange, beguiling vision than a movie—one I was pleased to have, even if I’m not fully sure of its meaning. Set in a remote Italian farming village and centered on the earnest, possibly intellectually disabled young man of the title (Adriano Tardiolo), the movie wafts about on its own whims and seems like it might dematerialize at any moment. It’s as if a mid-century work of Italian neorealism took a nap in a field and had a dream.
Lazarro is at once the village’s favorite son and its most put-upon figure. With his pleasant half-smile and eagerness to oblige, he’s everybody’s friend—especially when there’s work to be done. The soundtrack is a constant refrain of his name—“Lazzaro!,” “Lazzaro!”—as one person calls for his assistance with this and another asks him to come help with that. Tardiolo—a novice actor whose sincere stare, stiff walk, and oversized pants recall Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp—shuffles from chore to chore without the slightest hint of a grudge. When the pitiless landowner (Nicoletta Braschi) arrives to assess the villagers’ progress in her tobacco fields, she says what we’ve already noticed: “I exploit them, they exploit that poor man.”
About halfway through the film there is a dramatic shift that I won’t give away, except to note that it builds upon the hints of magical realism we’ve already been given. (At one earlier point, the villagers discreetly blow toward the landowner’s son as he passes by and he’s suddenly hit with a huge rush of wind.) The twist also suggests that if Lazzaro was in some ways out of sync in his little village, he’s even more lost in the modern world. This leads to a dramatic ending, where the Bressonian, martyr-like qualities that have dogged Lazzaro from the beginning come crashing down on him. It will read as haunting or heavy-handed, depending on how fully you’ve come to embrace the movie’s fabulistic vision.