Happy as Lazzaro (2018)

Rates: * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? Catching up on Indiewire’s Top 100 Films of the Decade that I haven’t seen (and recommended by my friend Musti).

Cast, crew, etc.

Trailer

On a tobacco plantation in rural Italy, a ramshackle community live a timeless existance. Sharecroppers, essentially endentured servants, they are kept under an economic jackboot by the plantation’s cold-blooded owner. When the authorities find out about their illegal treatment, this group of innocents are forced out into the wider world, an environment they are not at all equipped to handle.

In their midst: Lazzaro, a boyish man who is treated as poorly by the other villagers, as the villagers have been treated themselves. They work him hard, take him entirely for granted, and will not even find him a bed when he devleops a fever (he normally sleeps outside, in the open). And so, another riff on the famous Stanford Prison Experiment: give a person power over another, and watch them abuse it.

But Lazzaro, both the character and the film, has more going on then a simple refrain on the inherant awfulness of people (although it devotes plenty of time to this). Mid film Lazzaro suddenly falls to his death. Many years later he is miraculously resurrected, having not aged at all; he then seeks out the villlagers he used to live with, and finds them in a city slum. His wide clear eyes now behold the modern world, and find it not very good; despite his inclination to focus on simple, natural delights, the relentless ugliness of his surroundings finally overwhelms him.

Alice Rohrwacher’s twisty fable blurs the boundaries between different time periods, to comment on history’s repetitive nature. At film’s start the planatatiion workers live much as they would have a hundred years beforehand, which is contrasted with the 90s style clothes and outlook of their handlers. Their ejection into modern Europe of the present day adds a third time period: pre-twentieth century, to recent history, to now. And in all of these eras, the people at the bottom of the economic heap are treated much the same: terribly, with only the details varying.

Significant wolf

Lazarro’s return from the dead adds an unusual variant on this theme. It is suggested that he has supernatural powers; he is seemingly raised by a wolf spirit, banishes music from a church, and takes another form after he is killed for a second time. This made me think of him as a Christ substitute. What if Jesus showed up, right now, in the present day? He would almost certainly be regarded as a freak, castigated, ostracized, his message and meaning misconstrued. Exactly what happened first time round, 2 000 years ago. History repeats again.

In interviews Rohrwacher has acknowledged the Christ symbolism, but has suggested a broader view. In Italy, as in many countries, a rich local mythology helps people understand the world. It could be Christianity, or it could be some local folk tale. But there is no reason why the legends we lean on have to be ancient; history has not ended, so why not continue to make new myths, from our everyday modern surroundings?

There will always be poor people, there will always be privelaged people that abuse them, and there will always be stories to help us manage. And that? It’s wild carrot. But it’s not yet ripe.

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