Alice Rohrwacher won the Best Screenplay citation at Cannes for Happy as Lazzaro, though you could make a strong argument that she deserved more. From what I’ve seen from the unusually strong lineup, the film is a true standout: a Super 16mm fugue state that is both elegy and lament for a world that once valued selfless deeds and the humanistic interaction between fellow men above self-preservation and eternal mistrust. It is not necessarily grieving the loss of history’s knight-errants, who sought to convey a kind of bravado that leaned towards the hypermasculine and misogynistic. Rohrwacher may position Lazzaro as a knight with his own questing narrative, but it is both modernized and universalized. Lazzaro quests not for a maiden, but for a marquis of his own sex, believing to be of his lineage. This marquis is not snatched away from his castle, but leaves on his accord, disgusted with the cheating ways of his elders. Lazzaro loses sight of him because he becomes dislodged from time, not because of a fire-breathing dragon or a villainous rival standing in his way. Most importantly, Lazzaro’s steed is his heart, which is steadfast in its loyalty to the good of man. So steadfast it is that no one can truly exploit him, as the marquis crucially notes to his cynical mother. The labour he gives, he gives freely, because he reaps the benefits of the comforts those around him feel when their burdens are lifted. Nothing, in effect, inconveniences him.
Lazzaro’s system makes sense in the aptly named Inviolata. There is ignorance that allows people to live in a safety net of sorts, with roofs and meals despite unpaid toiling. Once that veil is lifted, and an acute awareness of capitalism’s harm seeps into the world, Lazzaro becomes the square peg that can gain no footing. Outside of Inviolata, after several undetermined years of bodily stasis, he is (literally) sainted, because his higher ethos is made visible compared to the squalor and decay of modernity. He has not been grimed in dirt, and stress has not ravaged his face. Or, to put it another way, in the past, he was the knight in Camelot; take away Camelot, and you are left with a halo. I’d go so far as to venture that this tale is Rohrwacher’s reinterpretation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, with her own magic realist and neorealist touches, for both works do ask the same fundamental question: how can an embodiment of pure goodness survive in an age of exploitation and egotism? Both, I think, arrive at similar conclusions, albeit in different ways. Neither is happy as Lazzaro. Rohrwacher wishes being happy as Lazzaro were still possible, and the film weeps for such an end. Sacred music follows him out of a church and into the night air, so desperate it is to believe that it is possible. We want to believe the same.
If you’ve read this review up until this point, you will appreciate just how abundant this film is. Few films from this year can be unspooled and debated in a way that satisfies the soul. There is so much to talk about, so much to savour. Rohrwacher has spared us nothing. She probably could have given us another hour of material if she had the chance. And I’m not convinced my own reading gets at every detail she did include. Someone else will certainly find other nuances to highlight. So I urge to go into it with an open mind, and to meet Lazzaro in your own way. Share him with others. Then see what revelations will arise.