Movie Review: “Happy as Lazzaro”

TMN movie critic Gordon McPherson gives “Happy as Lazzaro” five out of five hearts.

The deeply moving Netflix-exclusive “Happy as Lazzaro” is a breathtakingly complex cinematic experience that anyone with a soul would appreciate.

Lazzaro, a gentle, naive young man, brilliantly played by newcomer Adriano Tardilo, lives and works on a sharecropping tobacco farm in the picturesque Italian countryside. The other workers, ranging from small children to senior citizens, work tirelessly day after day under their “marquis,” the malevolent Alfonsina de Luna, to whom they are constantly indebted. They nevertheless form a loving community amid their harsh circumstances. The titular Lazzaro is exploited both by the Lunas and his fellow workers and is constantly bossed around for tasks others refuse to do. Lazzaro, however, never questions the extra work he’s assigned and maintains a kind, selfless and innocent demeanor. Soon after Lazzaro meets the Lunas’ wealthy and privileged son Tancredi, played by Luca Chikovani, the film takes a wholly unpredictable turn and becomes a trenchant commentary on the inequalities that have scarred societies, both past and present, and the kindness required to mend them.

“Happy as Lazzaro” is a film best left for viewers to discover for themselves, containing twists and turns that completely subverted my expectations. Indeed, I felt like a changed individual after the credits rolled, sobered by its bleak depiction of modern society and self-reflective of how I can act more selflessly in my daily life.

The film’s Italian director, Alice Rohrwacher, mixes gritty neorealism with elements of fairy tales to incredible effect. Rohrwacher presents suffering and contentment, sadness and happiness, joy and tragedy — all while following a highly sympathetic protagonist.

The film practically overflows with symbolism and themes, making it apt for enthusiastic discussion once it concludes. Overall, though, “Happy as Lazzaro” takes a definite anti-capitalist stance that’s entirely relevant in today’s inequality-stricken world.

“Happy as Lazzaro” also rewards careful viewing and distributes tidbits of information throughout that disoriented me and left me wholly intrigued to see what would happen next. The film’s measured, deliberate approach belies some of the most fascinating plot twists in recent cinema, leaving me immediately wanting to rewatch the film after it ended.

Of course, much of the film’s power comes from Tardilo’s masterful performance as Lazzaro. Tardilo imbues Lazzaro with a sense of purity that’s both endearing and heartbreaking. Lazzaro’s a character whose thematic significance transcends the film itself — he represents a mirror for other characters, as well as viewers, to reflect on themselves.

It doesn’t hurt that “Happy as Lazzaro” is also one the best-shot films I’ve ever seen. Rohrwacher uses film grain and a constrained aspect ratio to tactile effect, preserving the griminess of the characters’ environments while often composing shots of staggering beauty.

There’s so much more I want to discuss, especially the outstanding ending, but to give anything away would be a crime. Suffice to say, though the film’s style and thematic weight might bore casual viewers looking for another apolitical superhero punching session, anyone looking for a film with real substance shouldn’t pass it up.

Gordon McPherson is TMN’s movie critic. He is a junior communication major.