Wednesday 28 August 2019

On demand: "Happy as Lazzaro"

This year, a prominent strain of European cinema has busied itself meshing together 20th and 21st century settings, as to insinuate that - even in our moment of entirely hooked-up enlightenment - we're still struggling to evolve beyond that which came before us. (A glimpse at the headlines would suggest the filmmakers have a point.) Christian Petzold's just-released Transit maps the refugee crisis Europe faced in the 1940s onto the streets of latter-day Paris and Marseilles; the Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro uses its two hours to transport us from the rural to the urban, mirroring the wider social migrations of the past century. It begins in an agricultural backwater with the doubtless-symbolic name of Inviolata, where a shortage of lightbulbs (one or two per house, to be shifted from room to room as required) and the fulsome eyebrows of the village daughters indicate we're some distance removed from the present tense. The Kodachrome curves at the corners of Rohrwacher's frames provide their own form of carbon dating, pinning the action down to some time between the 1960s and 1980s; that we're at the latter end of this timescale is established via the appearance of a first-wave mobile phone and a Sony Walkman. These relics are somewhat startling as, up until then, Rohrwacher's camera has devoted itself exclusively to the recording of feudal ways, much as the Tavianis and Ermanno Olmi did in what was perceived as the arthouse's golden age. Here are an extended family of farmers, in debt to a chilly, chainsmoking marchioness (Nicoletta Braschi); here is a humble young farmhand, Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), planning to elope with the beloved he's seen serenading in the opening scene, only to be told there can be no escape from this place for those such as he. Peasant, know thine place.

The crypto-Marxist parable that follows will refute that instruction absolutely - Lazzaro will get around - yet the social stasis Lazzaro has been born into poses no immediate issue to the film, busy setting out a world with something remarkable to be spotted everywhere one looks. The marchioness's house alone offers up such hidden treasures as images of saints secreted under mattresses and on the sides of drawers for good fortune; a fresco of Inviolata on a bedroom ceiling that serves as a road map for the film entire; not to mention a bearded ghoul our host's right-hand man has to shoo away from the front drive. Rohrwacher's previous feature, 2014's beekeeping drama The Wonders, announced the arrival of a filmmaker with a honeydrip patience and a back-to-basics sensibility, capable of taking pleasure and finding fascination in the simplest of things. The Inviolata scenes display an adoring eye for unprimped, lived-in faces that Pasolini would have thrilled to, and an outright delight in warmed-through exteriors: here is a director who palpably enjoys being out in the field, feeling the sun on her back. One of the reasons Happy as Lazzaro has been so enthusiastically embraced by the critical fraternity since its debut at the Cannes festival last year is that it's clearly been conceived as oppositional: grounded and analogue, rooted in the day-to-day realities of those born without undue powers, wearing the grain of the film it was shot on like some artisanal badge of honour, it's nothing if not a break from all those digitised exercises in citytrashing currently blowing up the multiplex.

It's even more than that, however: a film that stands in its own right as a knotty, appreciably complex vision of class relations and social progress. The centre of Happy as Lazzaro is the unlikely alliance that forms between our hero and the marchioness's rebellious son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), a name carrying echoes of that great Italian epic of page and screen The Leopard. After Tancredi runs away from the home he, too, has started to find constricting, he asks Lazzaro to play the role of his kidnapper - thus securing a ransom payment that will help them travel a little further down the road; the winding path they cut through the rocky, wolf-infested countryside beyond Inviolata mirrors the twists and turns in the pair's relationship. Cinemagoers who've seen what the ruling classes have done to the world in the first years of the 21st century will be aware of a tension in this relationship that the characters themselves aren't: we know that this bond is a fragile and temporary one, not necessarily the helping hand the guileless Lazzaro maybe thinks it is, and we suspect that it's liable to be complicated further (or loosened entirely) when a price is put upon it. I don't think many of us will be expecting just how fragile and temporary it is, however - which is one way of saying that Happy as Lazzaro is very much a film of surprises: even stumbling across it on a streaming platform a full year after its Cannes premiere and six months on from its UK theatrical release, I found it wrongfooting me in places, bowling me over completely in others. I gasped at one unexpected development on a clifftop, and there's a lurch, possibly a great leap forward, around the halfway mark that may well be signalled by the title, but still requires some going along with. 

That runs the risk of reducing the movie to no more than a cute conceit or, worse, a Shyamalan-ish bag of tricks; that the Cannes jury awarded it the Best Screenplay gong strikes me as something of a backhanded compliment. Yet Rohrwacher does such good, rigorous, engaged work in the first hour that she seduces us into going along with her and her characters: we want to see how her holy innocent hero is going to fare in the new world he eventually finds himself in. It isn't just the landscape that compels us, in other words; it's how Rohrwacher guides us through it. I won't spoil what's best discovered en route, but the second half is both a cracking job of redirection and quite a funny joke about direction: how there remain certain places on this planet where you can point a camera one way and see nothing but modernity, yet point it another and seem to be staring decades into the past. (In doing so, Rohrwacher passes sly comment on the gap not just between past and present, but also between plenty and poverty.) This camera, you feel, could go anywhere - it spirals off to explore that thin strip of territory separating religiosity from what we could call Peter Pumpkinheadism come the final reel, threatening to give up some of the grip Rohrwacher has exerted on our imagination for two hours. It's only at the very end, looking back, that you realise the distance in space and time this small, quiet miracle of a film has bridged.

Happy as Lazzaro is available on DVD through Modern Films, and to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.

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