Movie Review: 'Happy As Lazzaro'
A couple of weeks ago, as year-end best-of lists started coming out, I noticed a movie that wasn’t familiar, and that was showing up on so many lists that I felt like I should pay attention. It’s an Italian film called Happy As Lazzaro, and, very fortunately, it’s being distributed domestically through Netflix.
It’s the story of a young man named Lazzaro, who lives in a community that works on a farm owned by a wealthy woman referred to as “The Cigarette Queen.” She calls the workers sharecroppers, but realistically they’re much closer to slaves. Lazzaro appears simple and wide-eyed, eager to help and please, utterly lacking in guile. He’s befriended by the Cigarette Queen’s rebellious son, a tempestuous 20-something who wants nothing more than to get far away from his mother and his life. I say Lazzaro is “befriended,” but it may be more that he’s “exploited.” It’s not hard to take advantage of the kindness of someone like Lazzaro.
The movie seems to be a bit of Italian neo-neo-realism, if I can make up such a thing—the way it’s shot feels as if we’re right there with these people, living their lives and being ground down by their poverty. And then, everything takes a very hard right turn that you’ll either go with or you won’t, which results in Lazzaro being separated from his community for a time, and eventually finding them again after they’ve been freed from their bondage. Whether or not they’re now in a better situation isn’t entirely clear.
Happy As Lazzaro is a bit bemusing, and it’s certainly commenting on Italian class conflicts that I don’t entirely understand, but I’m OK with not getting every single part of what happens. I found myself completely enchanted with how the movie grounds what turns out to be a fantastical story in a believable reality, and with how it treats Lazzaro. He’s the latest in a long line of characters whose innocence lives side-by-side with a deep and humane wisdom, and for those of us who fancy ourselves knowing something about the world, he’s a good reminder that we may still have a lot to learn.