Neorealism is an acquired taste, film wise. For some, it is among the heights of cinema. For others, it can be a slog to sit through if not paced right. Martin Scorsese clearly has a fondness for Italian Neorealism, as he recently hosted an awards event for “Happy as Lazarro,” Italy’s probable entry into the Best Foreign Language Feature race at the Oscars. Playing at the New York Film Festival, this movie doesn’t make it easy on you. The pace is languid, questions are left unanswered, and there’s a vibe that you have to ease into. At the same time, the themes are universal, the filmmaking is top notch, and the end result is worthwhile.
“Happy as Lazarro” marks filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher going in an interesting direction. She mixes some very real social commentary with literal magic. Rohrwacher looks at class disparity, but also something borderline religious. There’s a lot going on here. Not all of it works, which can make segments drag. The sum of all of its parts, however, builds towards an experience that’s rather rewarding. You just need to put in the work to get there.
The film begins in the Inviolata village, a secluded Italian spot where the villagers still live as essentially indentured servants. Under the thumb of Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), the workers ease their burden by putting as much as possible on young Lazarro (Adriano Tardiolo). A simple boy with an always sunny disposition, he is often taken advantage of. When a young nobleman named Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) takes a liking to him, Lazarro has a friend. However, this also leads to trouble when Tancredi asks Lazarro to help fake a kidnapping. This starts in motion events that will actually lead to the boy traveling to the future.
Once Lazarro arrives in the future, he begins searching for the adult Tancredi (Tommaso Ragno). He also comes upon his former neighbors who were made aware of the ruse they were tricked by. Still living in poverty, their dark disposition is again placed against Lazarro’s optimism. From there, we just observe how everyone comes together and interacts, years later.
In casting a non professional actor, Rohrwacher gives “Happy as Lazarro” an extra sheen of realism. That makes for an interesting mix with the magical realism on display as well. For his part, Adriano Tardiolo is top notch. The way he observes the world around him is strangely compelling. You just want to watch whatever he’s doing. Even in simple moments where Tardiolo is barely doing anything, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Nicoletta Braschi, Luca Chikovani, and Tommaso Ragno are solid, but Tardiolo is best in show. Agnese Graziani and Alba Rohrwacher also co-star, among others.
Alice Rohrwacher really goes for it here. “Happy as Lazarro” does not play it safe at all, opting for neorealism and long takes over simple storytelling. From the bold filmmaking choices to the ambitious direction, Rohrwacher really showcases her skills. Armed with strong cinematography from Hélène Louvart, this also looks beautiful. If you allow yourself to be hypnotized by the movie, it will leave its mark on you. It certainly did for Scorsese, considering his helping hand in getting it seen. In not answering questions, Rohrwacher leaves it to you to figure things out. Whatever answer you have, that’s what you’ll bring into the work. It’s a risky maneuver, though she manages to pull it off.
If you’re a patient cinephile, “Happy as Lazarro” is for you. NYFF is showcasing this as one fo their festival outings, and rightly so. Any fest that wants to spread the love of cinema worldwide would do well to play this. Since Netflix is distributing, it will be widely seen too. Perhaps Scorsese had a hand in that, considering he’s working with them on “The Irishman,” but that doesn’t really matter. However you slice it, this movie is a challenging work that rewards your dedication.