The first hour of Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazzaro) are as languidly paced as a film could be. The denizens of an Italian estate called Inviolata where farmers (well, sharecroppers) cultivate tobacco for their cruel baroness the Marquise Alfonsino de Luna, nicknamed the ‘Queen of Cigarettes. She sits in a penthouse while her workers toil on the plantation and it all seems to exist out of time. The group of 28 live in one house and share a single lightbulb. They look like early 1900s peasants but then hey, there’s a Walkman and a late 1990s flip phone. Even as it seems not much is happening, Rohrwacher is already setting the stage for the anachronistic time-warp about to unfold.
Our protagonist is Lazzaro, a seemingly simple and definitely naive young man with a cherubic face and demeanor to match. He is played by newcomer Adriano Tardiolo in a performance of deceptive nuance. As the Marquise and her minion bark orders to the workers, the workers treat Lazzaro as their whipping boy. “Lazzaro!” one yells, to have him pick up tobacco leaves. Another yells before he’s finished the first batch, and so on. But he completes his tasks with no complaint, he does as he’s told. He’s befriended by the Marquise’s lanky, bleach-blond son Tancredi (played by actor/singer Luca Chikovani like a skinny Billy Idol) and concocts a plan to kidnap himself and ask his mother for the ransom so that he can leave. Again, Lazzaro goes along with this plan out of guileless friendship unaware of ramifications if they are found out. Think Anthony Michael Hall trying to dupe Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands by way of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
What happens next makes good on the little hints of what the second half of this story is and indeed, Lazzaro’s very name should be the biggest hint of all. After a considerable time jump (20 years?) Lazzaro returns to the estate to find it run down and empty. No Tancredi, no workers, his only relative – his grandmother – gone. During Lazzaro’s absence, the police discovered the Marquise’s illegal set up and they carted the workers away, presumably to a better life away from forced servitude. Who he does happen upon are two thieves rooting out the place for the last bits of salvageable good. Lazzaro, in affable fashion, offers to help them even showing them a secret safe where the expensive cutlery is stored. He asks for the scavengers to give him a ride into town to look for his friend (“half-brother,” as Tancredi called him, to lure him in closer) and is told to walk. So he does. And it’s a long, long way. He finds, quite by luck, the two men who abandoned him and they, like Tancredi, bring him into their schemes. They return to their home with him, an urban hovel really, and we see that it’s a handful of workers from Inviolata. They struggle to survive, eating stolen chips and existing in the ‘real’ world that in some ways is worse than where they were rescued from. He even finds Tancredi, now a bloated mess and still up to no good. With each new experience in this ‘new’ world, Lazzaro begins to feel the pain of deception and loss. What was once a face of unmoved optimism finally shows signs of sadness and disappointment.
Magical realism seems to be a common theme with a lot of films at this year’s festival and something Rohrwacher has a penchant for herself (like her last film, the Cannes Grand Prize winner The Wonders) but with Lazzaro Felice, she has raised her own bar to create her best work to date and one of the fest’s very best films.