Happy as Lazzaro, translated from the Italian title, Lazzaro Felice, won Best Screenplay at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. On Friday, Nov. 30, seven months after its European debut, the film, directed by Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, finally came to Netflix. The film was not only listed as a critic’s pick in the New York Times but was also the topic of conversation for Vox’s weekly Cinemastream column.
Set in Inviolata, a small, nondescript place in rural Italy, the opening scene of the film begins with a group of village men serenading a woman below her window in the middle of the night before the newlywed couple announces their plans to move to the city. Under the flickering, dim light of the intimate dining room, Lazzaro, a young man with curly hair and an impressionable gaze, appears.
The film grain effect, coupled with the village workers’ rather outmoded attire, made me question how “modern” this so-called fairy tale actually was. To be frank, the lack of contemporary familiarity made me almost stop watching. I was reluctant to put myself in the same confounding generational gap that I experienced while accompanying my grandfather on one of his summer movie nights.
But finding myself too quick to judge what I perceived as unrelatable folklore, I carried on watching and saw the rest of the plot unfold into a marvelling story that has now made Happy as Lazzaro one of the best movies I have ever watched. While Lazzaro is a man of few words, his reserved complacency and almost inhuman stoicism and obedience becomes a major component of his character development. As he attends to the physical toil of picking bundles of long leaves in the fields, a man in a suit arrives at the village in a red truck, inspecting the progress the farmers have made.
Shortly after, a woman, referred to as the Marquis, also arrives from the city. Her son, Tancredi Bambino, displays a rebellious angst against his cold, ruthless mother, a characterization which designates him as a direct foil against the peaceful, calm and saint-like temperament of Lazzaro.
In the film, the Marquis, also known as Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna, pretentiously rotates her finger around a yellow music box lipstick cigarette carousel holder, and her son, Tancredi, prides himself on his smoker’s cough. Through this it becomes clear that the Marquis and the man in the suit are not mere visitors but, rather, profiteers exploiting the village workers for tobacco. At the same time, images of Tancredi using a flip phone and wearing a fashionable, ‘80s-Milan-fashion-show outfit begin to distort the temporal reality of the story, a subtle trick that makes the plot twist all the more surprising.
As much as Lazzaro and Tancredi are complete opposites, they develop a friendship at Lazzaro’s go-to enclave at the top of a barren hill overlooking the village. For both young men, their friendship is an escape that restores humanity to their individual ostracization.
While the developing friendship becomes a beautiful display of pure, innocent happiness, the film’s cinematography is, in itself, also breathtakingly beautiful. It often reminded me of Call Me By Your Name, although it was much more authentic in its Italian aestheticism. Even as it captures the very essence of compassion and morality, it also tackles darker elements, incorporating heavier critiques about societal issues. By the end of the film, I was left overwhelmed, astounded and oddly emotional.
In the sense that Lazzaro represents the most untainted form of contentment, completely free from hate, I was able to better understand why so many critics deemed this story as a modern fairy tale — one that oscillates between the reality of human imperfections and the fantasies we hold toward attaining the highest form of internal happiness.
Just as the New York Times so fittingly described it, “[The film] has the urgency of a news bulletin and the authority of a classic.” Indeed, this film will be one that I will continue to return to as I grow old and one that I hope to share with my grandpa this winter.