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Non-Review Review: Happy as Lazzaro

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Happy as Lazzaro meditates profoundly on the modern world, and reaches the important and timely conclusion that maybe slavery is bad and maybe capitalism is not all that it is cracked up to be.

Alice Rohrwacher structures Happy as Lazzaro as an Italian neo-realist fable, a fairy tale for the modern world evoking both the Brothers Grimm and the Holy Bible. Its title character is a martyr who dies (or at the very least suffers terribly) repeatedly for the sins of the fallen world around him, wandering with wide-eyed innocence through a landscape that is ground beneath the heel of market forces. Happy as Lazzaro offers a happy-go-lucky protagonist who wanders listlessly from one event to another without any guile or ambition to cloud is judgement, affording him a purity that allows Rohrwacher to make her commentary on the various ills of contemporary society.

However, the biggest problem with Happy as Lazzaro is the eponymous character, the dim-witted and perpetually good-natured farmhand who provides both the narrative engine and the central perspective of the film. The issue is not actor Adriano Tardiolo, who does the best that he can with the material afforded to him, his face a perpetual blend of innocent optimism and mild confusion at even the most mundane of situations. The issue is the character himself, who exists as a moral and social vacuum at the heart of film. Happy as Lazzaro expects the audience to treat its central character as a paragon of virtue untouched by the sinful materialist world in which he finds himself. Instead, he comes across as a character completely devoid of any weight.

There is something to be said for using a character like that as a vehicle for social commentary. Narratives like Being There, Twin Peaks: The Return and Forrest Gump have employed the “guileless fool” as a protagonist to varying degrees of success. The issue with Happy as Lazzaro is that it is not content to simply use its central character as a leaf caught in a wind, but instead insists upon his purity and sanctity. Happy as Lazzaro is a film that constantly confuses the lack of any moral agency whatsoever with something approaching moral superiority.

There is a disconcerting blankness to Lazzaro in Happy as Lazzaro, the put-upon farm worker with a fondness for coffee and answering “yes” to whatever question is asked of him. Lazzaro’s face is perpetually blank, but this is not a mask. Instead, Lazzaro’s blankness is a reflection of his inner self. Lazzaro never seems happy. He never seems sad. He occasionally seems confused, and that confusion might cause him mild irritation or offer some miniscule insight into the world on whatever level he can process. That blankness means that Lazzaro is completely subject to any situation in which he is placed, and anything about the character exists largely as a projection of the world around him.

Lazzaro is very clearly “not all there.” There are more than a few moments where his blank stare looks more like something from a horror film than anything reassuring or pitiably, such as when he finds a young couple sneaking a kiss amid the crops, staring intensely at them as if trying to figure out how to assemble a complicated piece of furniture. At another point, Lazzaro blindly follows the son of the landowner around the estate as the heir apparent to the farm exposits at length about nonsense like the surface of the moon or “the weapon” that will defeat the corrupt system of capitalism. Happy as Lazzaro intends its character’s blankness to be reassuring and comforting, but it occasionally crosses over into downright creepy.

However, the big issue with Happy as Lazzaro is the way in which it insists upon interpretting Lazzaro’s blankness as a virtue. Lazzaro is the low man on the totem poll at the farm. The owner of the farm reflects on the process of capitalism with her son, asserting, “We exploit them, they exploit him.” Her son responds, “What if he doesn’t exploit anyone?” His mother dismisses even the idea, “Impossible.” It’s an interesting moral perspective, the challenge of what it means to be moral in a system of capitalist oppression. Is the only way to be moral in such a ruthless and exploitative system to eschew any sense of desire or want? To become a blank slate, as Lazzaro is? To turn yourself into what Joshua Greene would describe as “a happiness pump”?

It’s an interesting and loaded question, and one that seems particularly relevant in the the modern world where people are increasingly aware of the unintended moral consequences of their wants and desires; the clothes that are made in sweat shops, the damage to the environment created by something as simple as everyday shipping, the fact that prices on desirable items are only kept low by depressing wages. Everybody is complicit in the suffering of the people around them, the exploitation and the trauma. What if the only character capable of escaping this cycle of exploitation is a character completely devoid of want, and the only character who can be completely devoid of want is also completely devoid of character?

It’s a bold idea, and a terrifying idea. Indeed, The Good Place explored this concept rather well in its late third season, especially with the character of Doug Forcett in Chapter 36. The issue with Happy as Lazzaro is that it never seems to see its central character as particularly worthy of pity or compassion, nor to react with horror to the implication that the only way to be truly moral in this world is to eschew concepts like desire or self-interest. Instead, Happy as Lazzaro doubles down on the idea of its title character as some sort of symbol of divine purity who is too good for the world in which he finds himself, seemingly arguing that Lazzaro’s completely rejection of any agency (including moral agency) is a virtue that is simply being exploited.

Happy as Lazzaro is hardly subtle in positioning the title character as a messianic archetype. Although he has a grandmother, he does not have any parents of which he is aware. During an extended sequence in the middle of the film, Lazzaro is explicitly likened to a saint. His name evokes “Lazarus”, even though his story evokes another religious figure who came back from the dead. He literally wanders through the wilderness, before appearing as almost an apparition to his old followers to guide them back towards something more meaningful. Lazzaro is effectively positioned as an ineffectual saviour, a second coming that has arrived too late to actually redeem anybody, and so is cursed to failure.

There is something deeply frustrating in the way that all of this positions Lazzaro as a virtuous character, despite his complete lack of any internal morality. Happy of Lazzaro is such a relentlessly cynical work that “goodness” can only possibly exist in a vacuum, as the absence of “evil” rather than as a virtue of itself. This is a very bleak and very shallow worldview, but is very much par for the course with Happy as Lazzaro, a film that offers such cutting insights as “maybe capitalism is broken!” and “maybe keeping people as slaves is bad!” It is smug and condescending, convinced of its own pseudo-profundity without offering any observations of real value.

This is a shame, as Happy as Lazzaro actually looks quite lovely. Hélène Louvart’s cinematography is striking, capturing the idylic surroundings of Southern Italy in a way that adds a real texture to the film. Happy as Lazzaro looks and feels very much like a lost work of the seventies, a piece of film that slipped into a tranquil coma for a few decades, like its protagonist, and awoke in a world that had moved on. There is a warmth in the film, with the heat of those summers seeming to radiate from the screen in those golden hues. Appropriately enough given its subject matter, Happy as Lazzaro occasionally feels like a warm and comforting memory. There is impressive craft on display here.

However, Happy as Lazzaro can never get past its fundamental problems. These issues are compounded by the film’s length; not only does it fail to say anything new or interesting, it takes forever to repeat well-worn clichés. Happy as Lazzaro beautiful in places, but overlong. At least its lead has the luxury of sleeping through what feels like twenty years of nonsense.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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