There hasn’t been a more decent and selfless movie hero this year than the title character of Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, a sublime new Italian movie released directly to Netflix last month. As with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the film’s broadly mainstream digital platform is at once at odds with, and hopefully supportive and nurturing of, its utterly distinctive and original artistic vision. ’Tis the season for ranking things, and although it’s arriving late, Happy as Lazzaro is absolutely one of the year’s major new works—don’t make a list without it.
As played by the young, sweet-faced Italian actor Adriano Tardiolo, the slightly cherubic Lazzaro is a figure of pure grace, and a seemingly ideal protagonist for a beautifully crafted and surpassingly lyrical movie with the tone and texture of a folktale. But Happy as Lazzaro is not as innocuous as its namesake. Rohrwacher, who copped a prize at Cannes for the film’s deceptively spare screenplay, is a filmmaker of real imagination, meaning that while she understands the power of fairy tales, she doesn’t fully believe in them. She leaves the task of repressing reality to her story’s villains, whose control over Lazzaro and the other inhabitants of a mountainside tobacco plantation brings to mind, of all things, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. In that much-mocked but genuinely ambitious thriller, the director of The Sixth Sense did a poor job of disguising his broadly allegorical story’s signature twist—that its characters were living in a controlled present-tense simulation of the American past—but still managed to ask some interesting questions about the relationship between innocence and experience. How can a population see through the lies of its leaders if the truth of the situation isn’t even on the table?
Guilelessness is Lazzaro’s forte; as the film opens, he’s swiftly established as the most habitually put-upon—and yet, paradoxically, most sweetly agreeable—member of a peasant community whose clothing and customs are recognizably archaic, almost like something out of the Middle Ages. There is something artificial about this sense of pastness, however. Instead of storybook lushness, the image is lean and hungry—the location has a more parched, severe sense of beauty. The village structures are ancient and dilapidated but lit by electric bulbs. When a man arrives one afternoon to deliver supplies, he drives a beat-up pickup truck. There are rumors of a wolf lurking nearby, but the only real notice of an intruder in the night can be seen in the sky—blinking red lights that we recognize but the villagers regard with fear and suspicion.
Rohrwacher is a patient filmmaker, and she respects her audience’s intelligence while confounding its senses. The absolute oddness of these unspoken but increasingly visible clashes between medievalism and modernity creates a state of uneasy suspense in which our minds race trying to solve the riddle of what is going on, until the answer presents itself in the simplest and yet most unfathomable form possible: The residents of the suggestively named town of “Inviolata” are being kept as a form of slave labor by a mendacious noblewoman (Nicoletta Braschi) who manipulates their obliviousness from her home base in a big city in the 1990s (the time frame is set by her son’s portable CD player, with its tinny electro-dance playlist).
The conceit of a community being thrust obliviously out of time by their leaders has been tackled before in The Village, and also in Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, which is about an American slave plantation humming efficiently away long after the end of the Civil War. What makes Rohrwacher’s variation on this scenario so compelling is not only its stranger-than-fiction basis (sharecropping was only outlawed in Italy in 1982, and the story is supposedly based on a real scandal) but how it negotiates the reveal so that only Lazzaro remains blind—not out of defiance or denial, but an inability to process the actual shape of existence around him. In Inviolata, his role is to do as he’s told by whoever asks, and servitude brings him pleasure. When the authorities arrive to break up the operation and rescue the victims, there is genuine terror in the prospect of liberation.
If Happy as Lazzaro was simply about a contingent of oppressed peasants gaining a measure of self-awareness and catching up with history in the process, it would be clever enough, but that’s only half of Rohrwacher’s project and of her movie’s running time. Having seemingly eliminated the possibility that we’re watching something mythical, she quite startlingly introduces some actual magical realism by having her hero suffer a terrifying injury (a metaphor, perhaps, for his community’s plunge into the unknown) and then fulfill his New Testament destiny by being resurrected (like Lazarus) in order to see the world beyond Inviolata. When he gets there, we’re once again confused, since it seems that, once again, decades have passed, placing us finally in the present tense—a space depicted as a grittier, uglier mirror image of the first half’s pastoral backdrop. It’s not that progress has passed Lazzaro and company by so much as that it is, essentially, illusory. The methodology of Braschi’s villainess is as old as the feudal system and as up-to-date as any kind of uncompensated labor: Time is a flat circle, but capitalism is the other side of that coin.
It’s in this same spirit of unchangeability that Lazzaro’s goodness endures —not as a foil to the forces of exploitation, but as their instrument. In a Hollywood fairy tale like Being There or Forrest Gump, the archetype of the idiot savant is used to make a satirical comment about society and its desire for easy answers (whether in form of cryptic pronouncements about gardening or a “shit happens” T-shirt). For Rohrwacher, the stakes are more serious. Her version of national portraiture, depicting an Italy eternally split between haves and have-nots, is never sweetly reassuring and affirmative à la Gump, which made Tom Hanks a symbol of American exceptionalism not in spite of his stupid-is-as-stupid-does worldview, but because of it (and showed him getting rich for the same reason).
Here, the pretzel logic of “stupid is as stupid does” plays as a critique of the forces that conspire to keep people compliant. Lazzaro is a holy fool, no doubt, but holiness is damnable because it eternally prevents him from resisting or reimagining his position: in both a personal and a symbolic register, he’ll never learn. I don’t think there’s a more moving—or infuriating—moment in any movie this year than when he pleads for an (impossible) return to the way things were before his resurrection and release into reality. It’s moving because Tardiolo inhabits the character’s yearning with utter sincerity, and infuriating because we understand how deeply he’s internalized the logic of subservience. There is gentle whimsy in Rohrwacher’s film, but the questions it raises about what it means to be “happy as Lazzaro” are shot through with a plangent anger. It’s a quality kept tamped down in fairy tales but essential to all great satire, which understands that “happily ever after” is not an ending but a promise that can’t be kept, bobbing just out of reach while we chase it based on the stories we’ve been told as children.