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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.

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