Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Happy As Lazzaro – a morality tale of slavery, exploitation and wolves (QFT from Friday 5 April)

Welcome to the mad and sometimes metaphysical world of Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro. It’s a tale of servitude and poverty in two halves, seen through the eyes of a young and compliant lad called Lazzaro (played by Adriano Tardiolo).

The first hour watches as 54 farm workers live in three small homes with a couple of light bulbs between them, growing tobacco and other crops for the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna. Since a bridge collapsed in the 1977s, the feudal commune believe that they are isolated, with just whatever machinery and vehicles they can keep running to help work the land and survive into the 1990s.

The marchioness’ business agent and a priest use a hoist to pick up crops, though somehow the farm produce never begins to pay off the supposed debt. When the sharecroppers’ boss makes her annual visit, she stays with her son in the relative comfort of house, with some of the farming teenagers waiting upon them and the goings-on providing a soap opera for the remote community.

Filmed on Super 16mm, the sepia quality of the picture helps age the first act, and eases the deliberately confusing transition at the mid-point when a bump on Lazzaro’s head somewhat magically jumps the action forward in time. We can see how the group are now faring in a more urban landscape. It’s safe to say that the exploited have become the exploiting, and where wolves once preying on the slaves, it’s now the bankers squeezing their former overlords.

The concept and conceit behind Happy As Lazzaro is novel and at times unexpected. Rohrwacher’s storytelling is gentle and some levels seemingly unconcerned with structure or significance. The audience build up a picture – in my case with a few false starts – of who the main characters will be over time.

Happy As Lazzaro is a warning that being obedience and biddable is a poor substitute to challenging your environment, and a reminder that the oppressed are only a step away from becoming the oppressors.

While one set of Walkman batteries last a lot longer than normal, what’s more realistic is the possibility that a whole group of people could become trapped in what is really an open prison is a scary reminder of how peer pressure keeps people together and silences those who seek alternatives to the accepted norm.

Happy As Lazzaro is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 5 April. It’s a slow but rather spellbinding experience.

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