Viennale 2018: Lazzaro felice by Alice Rohrwacher

Lazzaro of the Wind, of the Leaves, of the Dust. He has been promised exactly nothing in being on Earth, just like the rest of us, but he is the only one who acts it. Lazzaro as if beginning from scratch every moment of every day, gullible because seemingly without memory, golden and merciful because endlessly giving, unfitted for the world because unable to tell good from evil.

Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature Lazzaro felice, following up on the lush honeycomb imagery of Le meraviglie, centers around this young man as unusual as he is common. Lazzaro’s exceptional nature seems to derive directly from this combination. It makes him see the miracle of being in the world nobody else appears to be aware of as well as facilitating his exploitation by others since his simplicity is beyond understanding. At first, we encounter Lazzaro in the (in)aptly named village of Inviolata, where 54 peasants daily toil for the „Queen of Cigarettes,“ Marchioness Alfonsina de Luna. Their living conditions make it hard for us to imagine that we share the same century, though there eventually proves to be no way of denying it. The opening of the film revolves around a quest for a shared treasure – a girl is being courted, serenades sung beneath her window, and her sister wants to turn on the light in the room. A challenging task, since the bottomless string of occupants of the meagre rooms share a single lightbulb among them. While the labourers are granted the occasional bite of fresh figs straight off the tree and a repose in the shade, their community is anything but idyllic. Almost in passing, exploitation and meanness are revealed as a feature of humanity rather than a property of a particular historical era. However, an undeniable stronghold bringing everyone together is revealed: the common enemy, easily identifiable as the „venomous snake,“ the Marchioness de Luna. However, whatever power she may have over the peasants can still be fought against, as the wind her subjects magically call into existence when her back is turned goes to show. The wind is a way of speaking against, a force of the world turned against injustice, and Rohrwacher fits it into the story with the exceptional ease of a distinguished storyteller.

Lazzaro Felice von Alice Rohrwacher

In the first half of the film, the sharp-edged features of the masters are at stark contrast with the moonlike hills and slopes surrounding the estate, the domain of peasants, sheep, and wolves. Contrasts are at the heart of the film, never easy or moralizing, and always above affected. This is especially manifest in the appearance of the Marchioness’ son Tancredi, a skinny bleached blonde walking around with a small dog under his arm, bored to death and clearly a member of our own century. He befriends Lazzaro in a manner more akin to keeping a pet and the latter offers him shelter and care, starving himself to bring food to the spoiled pretense escapee hiding in the hills, asking his mother for ransom so he can run away from Inviolata. The two boys couldn’t be more different, and Rohrwacher places them in a barren landscape that shows what remains of humanity when all its toys are taken away. The divide between people is expressed in colors, movements and, above all, in what they take for granted.

Lazzaro’s behaviour is characteristic only of Lazzaro – nobody can make sense of it or tries to particularly hard. To most of his co-labourers, he is a simpleton who will perform any task given to him, a hard worker who can be made use of. Only Antonia, one of the younger girls, feels a kinship and respect towards him, though she is too shy to express it. In a sense, Lazzaro seems to be Inviolata itself – he has no parents to speak of and could have easily been dropped onto the earth by a divine hand centuries ago. Lazzaro may be a folk tale, a fable or even a fairy tale, but if that is the case, Rohrwacher certainly knows how to tell a story. His is alive and breathing even in the moment of his death, an impediment which takes a few decades to heal. The mythical wolf, whose howls Lazzaro shyly imitated together with the less than shy Tancredi, comes to wake him into a new world no more new than the stones are after a few centuries have passed. Namely, in his absence, the film has performed a more than categorical leap, as the peasants were carried off from their village to the city in order to rejoin the rest of the world by well-meaning police officers. It turns out that a great fraud, based on a true event, was performed by the Marchioness, who illegally kept her tenants as sharecroppers, a practice long since outlawed in Italy. Discovering the village had been abandoned, Lazzaro sets off for the city.

Lazzaro Felice von Alice Rohrwacher

His eyes see the gray overtones of contemporary Italy just as unjudigingly as they did the landscapes of Inviolata. But if he was unsuited for that world, he is even more out of place in this one. With great skillfullness, Rohrwacher makes visible the crucial collapse that goes hand in hand with the shift in the organization of labour, describing the transformation of values and humanity with acute imagery and feeling. What better eyes to look upon our world than those of a holy fool? Who better to hypothesize about avarice and ruthlessness than those who do not understand it? As a nun turns Lazzaro and the band of former peasants led by a grown-up Antonia out of a church they entered to listen to organ music, the music abandons the keys and follows them outside, calling a forgotten question back to life: What is grace? There is magic in the wind just as there is magic in the world, but they can all be buried if no one dares look their way. Magically, Rohrwacher turned Lazzaro felice from a fable to a document, a shift in vision and a grace in its own right. This is a film: Exuberance filled with profound sadness, like the sight of the sun sinking into the sea.