Magic can be a tricky thing to put on a movie screen, where one viewer’s rapture can be another’s WTF. Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, making her third trip to Cannes with only her third movie, delivers a little of each with “Happy as Lazzaro” (“Lazzaro Felice”), which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Rohrwacher’s leisurely-paced film flits between social realism (see these poor exploited workers!) and magical realism (see the boy who never ages!), in ways that are sometimes transporting and sometimes maddening. If you can surrender to her peculiar vision, its beauty is undeniable; if not, impatience may set in long before the film winds down just past the two-hour mark.
In some ways, Rohrwacher, the second of the three female directors in the competition to screen, is the polar opposite of Eva Husson, whose “Girls of the Sun” was the first of the three to screen. Husson’s film is muscular and straightforward, a war movie that spells out every motivation and makes its flashbacks clear as day; Rohrwacher’s is elusive and shifty, trusting the viewer to completely change gears about halfway through.
Neither approach is wholly satisfying, but “Happy as Lazzaro” is, if nothing else, fascinating.
The director was last at Cannes in 2014 with “The Wonders,” a shaggy coming-of-age story that some of us found awfully meandering; the jury disagreed and gave it the Grand Prize, making it the runner-up to Palme d’Or winner “Winter Sleep.” (Her first film, 2011’s “Heavenly Body,” had been in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar three years earlier.)
“The Wonders” took place in a rural setting and focused on a family of beekeepers (based on Rohrwacher’s own family), and initially “Happy as Lazzaro” seems to be taking a similar approach. It introduces an extended family of more than 50 sharecroppers and laborers working on a lavish estate called Inviolata, owned by a rich tobacco baroness who treats them like dirt when she’s not pretending to be nice while oozing condescension.
The workers take it without complaint, none more so than Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), an angel-faced lad whose default setting is guileless incomprehension. To borrow a phrase from Jackson Browne, who once said it was given to him by Warren Zevon, Lazzaro is a happy idiot, delighted to go along with anything and everything asked of him, including when the rich family’s callow son, Tancredi, fakes his own kidnapping.
Eventually — things move slowly in these parts, you understand — this brings the police, who discover what the Marquise Alfonsino de Luna is up to decades after sharecropping had been abolished. The rich folks lose their estate, Lazzaro falls off a cliff — yeah, it’s that sudden and that casual — and somehow we end up in a very different movie.
In the second half of “Happy as Lazzaro,” everyone has moved to the city, though they’re no better off there than they were as sharecroppers. More significantly, Lazzaro wakes up from his guaranteed-to-be-fatal fall — and not only is he not dead, he hasn’t aged a day, while everyone around him is at least a decade older.
He is not, though, any smarter than he was before the fall. The happy idiot, it seems, is actually a holy fool — think Chauncey Gardner in “Being There,” but with fluffier hair and a tougher life.
The second half of “Happy as Lazzaro” settles firmly into the realm of fable, hovering somewhere between a charming fable and an unpleasant one. Some people have called it humanist, though it’s hard to see how a film in which every single person is a cheat, a swindler, a rube or a mark, except for the one who’s an actual saint, is entirely embracing of the human spirit.
But Rohrwacher and her director of photography Hélène Louvart has a knack for gorgeous, lovely visuals, enough that it’s possible to fall under their spell as Lazzaro works his holy-fool book of tricks, sweet cluelessness somehow making everything OK.
Most of the Cannes audience went with it wholeheartedly, though the threat of it all collapsing into silliness is never far away. To paraphrase Chauncey Gardner, Rochwacher gave them something they liked to watch.