About halfway through Lazzaro Felice, I was getting worried. For how long, I asked myself, can Alice Rohrwacher sustain the recurring vision of a nostalgic rural life that fuels her cinema without the risk of getting stuck in the past? Will she ever make a film that engages with its historical consequences?
Up until that point, the film appeared to have established a very similar – if broader and slightly more fantastically inclined – premise as Le Meraviglie, her previous Cannes Competition entry (and 2014 Grand Prix winner). The focus this time is not just on a family, but on the nightmarish, sprawling exaggeration of one: the film opens in the town of Inviolata, on a claustrophobic gathering of people nebulously related to each other (young Lazzaro is only really sure about his grandma) and yet all strongly opinionated, pushing against a kitchen table lit by a single bulb. This is what being part of an Italian family starts to feel like when you’ve been in their company for too long, but in Rohrwacher’s film it’s a status quo that everybody takes for granted.
The blame lies with the local Marchesa, who has built a fortune in the tobacco business by exploiting the entire community of workers; they’re told they are sharecroppers perpetually “a debito” and they behave as such, despite the fact that mezzadria should have been a distant memory in Italy by then. When is ‘then’, exactly? It doesn’t really matter, because one of Rohrwacher’s chief talents is creating a milieu with a plausible timespan of about a hundred years in each direction. It’s challenging enough to make you wonder, yet so nonchalant that you just feel silly if you try to bring numbers to this particular poetry fight (a few cell phones and a couple of iconic dance music tracks seem to place the story in the ’90s, though).
So there you are, pondering whether Rohrwacher’s cinema can only exist in a prism of memories or in the slight cop-out of a semi-contemporary Middle Ages, when she suddenly goes for a reckoning of sorts, slapping a time-jumping twist on this placid Ermanno Olmi fable. It naturally divides the film in two halves, which means people will express a preference for one or the other, but it’s the gap in between (seen through the eyes of Lazzaro) that marks the most interesting development in Rohrwacher’s filmography. No longer confined to a crepuscular interpretation of rural living, this is a chance to grapple with post-rurality – what happened to those people and those jobs over the last four decades, and even more pressingly the underrepresented stories of those who came to replace them.
The latter element, admittedly, is still dealt with in throwaway fashion (a scene depicting foreign workers bidding for shifts in a painful reverse auction, which mirrors the power dynamic on display in the old Inviolata days), but the slow unveiling of what’s left of the community is infused with the right combination of levity, pathos and affection. It’s a tricky transition to pull off without skipping a beat in tone, and it is largely successful thanks to some superb technical contributions: not only Hélène Louvart’s 16mm cinematography, left unmasked with all its natural fraying, but especially the costumes and art direction which are period-accurate to the tiniest detail and add resonance to everything from the bed frames in a dilapidated mansion to a patch of asphalt and a shack next to the train tracks.
When Lazzaro Felice works, it’s a deeply resonating allegory, light as a feather but lingering long after it has passed. Newcomer Adriano Tardiolo anchors the entire film with his wide-eyed purity, surrounded by a strong cast ranging from former TV sketch comics (Natalino Balasso) to game veterans like Sergi López (plus a special mention for Agnese Graziani, the kid who completely stole Le Meraviglie and who returns here as a young woman). When it doesn’t work, it’s because Rohrwacher missteps by not trusting the power of her own allegory. Wolves are evoked throughout, powerful as the sound of the wind that the contadini used to perform. But an ill-judged final push into literalism makes victims of both the sacrificial lambs (Lazzaro) and the elusive predatory animal. Suddenly, the poetic bubble bursts instead of soaring. Just as instead of dreaming along with the characters in their wish to return to an abandoned Inviolata, you’re left with the bitter realization that in this world – the one the film is still not fully acknowledging – Inviolata would not be free for the taking. But that’s another story, and I hope Rohrwacher gets to tell it in the future.