To the religious sceptic, a lot of miracles read smoother as metaphors: the bread not literal flesh, the wine not blood. What remains is the impulse to spin meaning, wherever it can be found, into comforting forms. In Alice Rohrwacher’s films, motifs of faith and folklore thread brief magic into working class lives. Her characters summon the immaterial to sensuous effect: a young girl cups a ray of sunlight in a dark barn, pooled warmth held against her mouth as if to drink; after a day of unpaid labor, weary workers blow wind at the turned back of a young marquis, the force of their defiance ferried by a mouth-made breeze. These innocuous transformations are reprieve from a hostile world, where the furtive movements of a changing nation are set against pockets of defiant time. In Corpo Celeste (2011), a young girl watches the Catholic church yoke its flagging customs to some warped idea of modernity; in The Wonders (2014), a family of beekeepers harvests honey in their bubble of agrarian routine, half-devoted to fielding a dying tradition, half-tempted by the cash compromise of updating their ways.
Rohrwacher’s latest film, Happy as Lazzaro, makes the rift much starker: sometime in the late twentieth century, a group of sharecroppers toil on the grounds of Inviolata, a secluded village and tobacco plantation owned by the ruthless Marchesa de Luna. The estate is bounded by a shallow river—no one ever visits except the Marchesa’s accountant and his daughter. The workers number fifty-something but share a handful of cramped rooms, herding sheep and gathering tobacco leaves without contract or pay, unaware that sharecropping has been illegal for years. Each harvest, the accountant seals their fates with a calculator: always in debt. When they ask for basic supplies, he rebukes them—why do they need things like light bulbs when they have this beautiful moon? Really, he reassures, they live well off the largesse of Mother Nature. Through the attentive camera of cinematographer Hélène Louvart, their lives do look deceptively arcadian on 16mm—aerial shots catch winding roads that cut through swathes of green; afternoon sun hits zigzagging trails etched into golden hillsides. At dusk, the wind runs through dark valleys like rushing waves.
These landscapes recall the soothing pastoralism of Ermanno Olmi’s post-neorealist films, scenes grounded by an impulse towards mundane detail and naturalistic camerawork. But what sets Rohrwacher on a terrain of her own is the distinct way she centers anachronism as an existential condition. When the film breaks the spell of Inviolata’s reclusion and the law comes trudging in, all electronic loudspeakers and orange hi-vis vests, it casts another one—all these temporal inconsistencies have the momentarily world-shaking force of minor miracles. Hard not to feel the tread of something numinous when shots are scattered with the detritus of clashing times: a clunky cell phone and its retractable antenna in a cave with no electricity; a woman with bright fuchsia highlights next to dusty serfs huddled in muddy linens. We aren’t all escapees of hamlet-bound servitude, but the jarring sense of flux in a fast-turning world is not so hard to recognize.
The film’s anachronistic heart is the titular Lazzaro, played by dewy-eyed newcomer, Adriano Tardiolo, with a mesmerizing candor that would be trying for any professional actor. Rohrwacher wields names like lucky charms
—Gelsomina in The Wonders
an echo of Fellini’s La strada
and the biblical Lazarus here turned Lazzaro felice.
He is the sturdiest and most compliant of the sharecroppers, content to bear the brunt of the work when he’s not staring, slack-armed, into the vacant night. At first, the sheer clarity of Lazzaro’s goodness seems a moral relic, carried over from the easy didacticism of a folkloric time. Soon, he becomes a literal relic, cherubic as ever while other characters skip decades ahead. His otherworldly airs recall the hypnotic stranger in Pasolini’s Teorema
an envoy of spiritual (and physical) arousal, but Lazzaro is largely met with irreverence until the mid-film time leap that recasts him as proximately divine. He tumbles off a cliff and wakes up years later to frost-tipped hills, with nary a scratch nor sign of aging. Long ago in the Marchesa’s manor, there were pictures of saints in secret places; stuck to the side of a drawer, tucked under a mattress. All this time, Lazzaro might well be a saint hidden in plain sight.
At the end of The Wonders, there is a shot that distils the emotional whiplash of stolen time into one long take, a device memorably echoed in Happy as Lazzaro. It’s just as jarring when Rohrwacher reveals signs of intrusive urbanity through slight formal shifts; right before the fall of Inviolata, we see familiar long shots of craggy hills and their rocky detail, slow pans set to the eerie glass of an organ tune in minor key. The airborne camera drifts to a view of the workers, ambiguous specks on a field until, suddenly, they look up in a near break of the fourth wall—the scenic pan morphs into a surveillance shot. The wind, too, changes its rhythm, now audible as the blades of a helicopter whipping violently in flight. Later, after the exodus from Inviolata, a shot opens with the sliver of a moon in a pinking sky, but the camera pans down and the frame is punctured by the jagged edges of a city horizon.
Just as the Marxist slant of post-war Italian cinema often found expression through the poetic, Rohrwacher deploys Lazzaro’s fabulist winds to oblique political effect. Miracles can startle but struggle to teach—divine intervention rarely comes with hard instructions. Didacticism is more the domain of folktale, though these lessons are also only for the attentive. A tale is a tale because it is told, but what good is telling against the brute forces of exploitation and urbanization? When Lazzaro leaves Inviolata, he runs into migrant workers at a job auction, bidding down the cost of their labor to even sneak a chance at employment. On the outskirts of a generic city, the remaining clan of sharecroppers live off scams and scavenged food in an old water tank, next to overgrown railroad tracks. Even the Inviolata scam is pulled from the headlines—Rohrwacher read about it, years ago, in a newspaper.
Folktales, writes Italo Calvino, famed chronicler of the fey, are a “general explanation of life preserved in the slow ripening of rustic consciences.”1
They are powerful because the centuries of their telling and retelling comprise a cultural reality of infinite variation and repetition. Rohrwacher’s cinema offers a similar faith in story, where the hard facts of rural life are told with an enchantment the world often seems to withhold.
1. Italo Calvino. The Uses of Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986.