Alice Rohrwacher on Happy as Lazzaro: “Poetry is politics!”

Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is one of the most imaginative films of the year. She tells us how she embraced fairytale rhythms and magic realism to tell a politically potent tale about the evils of capitalism

Article by Jamie Dunn | 19 Feb 2019
  • Happy as Lazzaro

In new Italian film Happy as Lazzaro, realism and poetry sit side-by-side. Speaking to Alice Rohrwacher, the film’s 37-year-old writer-director, one senses similar qualities. Sometimes her answers will start by describing the humdrum aspects of filmmaking and end in a romantic flourish. At other times she’ll begin with an ironic, almost sarky response, before taking her train of thought to deeply sincere places.

Rohrwacher’s film opens like a classic of the neo-realist style in which her nation used to specialise. We’re in a bucolic valley in the company of a small community of hardscrabble tobacco sharecroppers, who look as if they’re barely surviving. Clothes and living conditions suggest at the very least a pre-war setting. Money and food are in short supply – beds too. The extended family numbers the dozens, spread across four generations, all living on top of one another in a few crumbling farmhouses.

Among the throng is Lazzaro, a strapping teenage boy with an angelic face on whose broad shoulders much of the farm’s labour falls. The lad, as good and honest as they come, accepts his unequal share of chores with a nod and a smile.

These simple peasants are ruled over by a tyrannical marchioness – dubbed ‘the queen of cigarettes’ – but when this landlord does appear on the scene it’s clear not all is as it seems. For one thing, the marchioness has dragged her moody teenage son, Tancredi, along with her, and with his bleach blond hair, vibrantly coloured t-shirts and brick-sized mobile phone in hand, he looks like he’s just stepped off the set of 80s teen sitcom Saved by the Bell. The marchioness, it appears, has failed to inform her employees that feudalism was outlawed years ago, keeping them in blissful ignorance as they harvest her tobacco crops for practically nothing.

This plot setup, Rohrwacher explains, was inspired by a real-life incident. “There was this strange but true piece, not very important, tucked away in the newspaper, saying something like ‘How stupid are these peasants?’” she recalls. “'The marchioness forgot to tell them the law changed 15 years ago and they’re still thinking they are part of her property.' I’ve seen so many stories about people who’ve used their privilege to keep other people in ignorance, but this little article I read many years ago, I always remembered it.”

While visiting the plantation, Tancredi strikes up an odd-couple friendship with Lazzaro. The mischievous brat has cooked up a plan to fake his own kidnapping in an attempt to extort money out of his tightfisted mother, and the credulous Lazzaro is just happy to be of help to his new friend, getting himself embroiled in the hare-brained scheme with the same easy-going ebullience he shows when doing the lion’s share of the work around the farm. He seems to have no clue he’s being used and suffers with a serene smile.

It becomes clear Lazzaro is something of an allegorical figure – although this holy innocent is no hero. “Of course it would be lovely if someone like Lazzaro becomes the justice of the poor, but unfortunately life is not like that,” says Rohrwacher. “The poorest people around him don’t complain, so Lazzaro can’t imagine they need anything; but he listens to the plight of Tancredi, this spoiled kid who’s the only one feeling sorry for himself.” Lazzaro's level of altruism is not to be aspired to, she explains: “If you were to ask Lazzaro, ‘Can you go and put this bomb in this school?’ he’d say 'yes'. He’s not someone who’s taking a position on what he sees in front of him because he’s always seeing in other people a possibility of good.”

Lazzaro, then, might stand for the minimum wage worker who stays quietly dutiful while their rights are slowly eroded, or the uncomplaining citizen who refuses to vote for radical change despite continuing to get the shitty end of the stick.

Rohrwacher is certainly more clued-up and radical than her saintly protagonist. From the neorealist beginning, her thrillingly imaginative film starts to adopt fairytale-like rhythms. A gasp-inducing rupture at the heart of the film – one too surprising to spoil – might even be argued as sending Happy as Lazzaro into time-travelling genre territory. Rather than detract from her film’s fierce political dimensions, Rohrwacher’s use of the magical only serves to enhance the potency of her message.

“Poetry can be politics,” Rohrwacher says of her film’s singular style, before hesitating. “No,” she corrects herself. “Poetry is politics! You can use the fairytale to be more universal in the political sense.” But it’s not just in terms of content that Rohrwacher’s politics are expressed. “It’s political, too, to tell a story where the protagonist isn’t your typical hero. And the script is political because it doesn’t follow the rule of the hero's journey; it doesn't follow the rules that at page 40 you have to reveal this, and then there’s a second turning point at page whatever, and the antagonist goes here. It’s political because it throws out those rules.”

Australian actor Cate Blanchett and her fellow Cannes jury members seem to agree with Rohrwacher on her script’s qualities. When Happy as Lazzaro premiered at last year’s edition of that grandest of film festivals, Rohrwacher won best screenplay. Many commentators had hoped, however, that the Italian filmmaker might have been the first woman to lift the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, since Jane Campion a quarter of a century ago for The Piano.

Rohrwacher was well aware that much hope was placed on the shoulders of Happy as Lazzaro – one of only three films by female directors in Cannes’ competition field of 21 features – but for her, the film industry’s problems go well beyond who wins the Palme d’Or. “At Cannes, we got a lot of questions about women directors, but it’s like asking the problems of immigration to a refugee who is the only one to survive the horrible trip out of their homeland. I think we have to go back much further: put the same questions to people who decide who goes to the film schools, to the people who determine to whom they give money to make films."

Unlike her protagonist Lazzaro, Rohrwacher doesn't suffer these injustices with a smile. “It would be easier for everyone if a woman won the prize at Cannes in some ways, but you’d also have people saying, ‘Ah, she won because she’s a woman.’ So it’s always against you.” 

Happy as Lazzaro screens at Glasgow Film Festival: Fri 1 Mar, GFT, 1pm | Sat 2 Mar, GFT, 8.45pm
and is released 5 Apr by Modern Films