Alice Rohrwacher has established herself alongside contemporaries Paolo Sorrentino and Matteo Garrone as a preeminent voice representing Italy on the world cinematic stage. Her first two features, Corpo Celeste and The Wonders, depicted her native land as a territory whose storied history hampered progress toward modernization. Now, Happy As Lazzaro, for which Rohrwacher won the best screenplay prize earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, further literalizes the painful coexistence of the mythic and the modern in the Italian mindset with a time jump in its magical-realist narrative. Her ambitious gambit is anchored in its extraordinary eponymous character, played by newcomer Adriano Tardolo, whose ethereal grace feels distinctly supernatural against the backdrop of both exploitative agrarian tobacco sharecropping and contemporary urban despair.
Prior to Happy As Lazzaro‘s premiere at the New York Film Festival, I spoke with Rohrwacher about her views on a bifurcated Italy and why she needed to make this film at this particular moment in time.
You served as the New York Film Festival’s “filmmaker in residence” in 2016, during which time you were developing the film. Do you see any traces of the festival in the movie now that you’re back?
I actually wrote the movie when I was here in New York at the time. I thought it was extremely important to find my voice so far away from that world because that allowed me to see it much more clearly. I had done a lot of research about this subject, about the Marchesa de Luna and the farmers, but I wasn’t able to see it in its entirety. And I was able to gain that perspective from afar because when one is afar, it will become a little bit like Lazzaro. One’s eyes become much more open and sensitive. Being here is what allowed me to make this film.
You wrote the whole thing here?
Well, it’s the result of a long research process I carried out throughout many years. I started when I was a very young woman, and the events are based on an actual true story, so I was knowledgeable about it for a long time. But the actual writing, yes, I did it all here.
Before we get too far into talking about the film, I wanted to ask about the title Happy As Lazzaro. Is that by chance an idiomatic expression in Italy?
Yes, it is. In Italian, it’s slightly different. It’s not “happy as Lazzaro” but “happy Lazzaro.” That’s something you say when you see somebody who’s poor and therefore has nothing left to lose. For example, if you see a homeless person who’s actually singing and being happy, you say, “Oh look, a happy Lazzaro.”
In your films, there’s a constant tension between old and new: ancient Catholic traditions in Corpo Celeste, agrarian Italy meeting reality TV culture in The Wonders, and there’s literal time travel in Happy As Lazzaro. Are these two versions of Italy something you think you’ll always explore in your work?
I grew up in a country in which the present and the past coexist at the same time. For example, you can have a gas station right next to a Roman aqueduct. They are side by side. You see the signs of modernity really literally next to the signs of many different eras. Therefore, my gaze was shaped by growing up in such a country in which the temporal closeness of time is never linear. It’s a case in which one literally needs to find their own space in a place which is already quite crowded with a lot of different strata. That’s how my gaze was shaped up. I had to find my own space within a crowding that is time-related, and I needed to find my own niche into.
Your protagonists are generally people who can bridge the gap between two disparate, often warring worlds. What draws you to such characters?
I think it’s very important politically for me to look at this land at the border in a historic moment in which there’s a tendency toward building walls. It’s fundamental for our look to be focused on the border so that we can see how ridiculous it is to separate things and have divisions, and how things that seem divided when looked at from a broader perspective are all part of the same entity. Therefore, yes, my protagonists are people on the threshold of things. I think of them sometimes as rope walkers. On the one hand, there is tradition, and on the other hand, there is this exploration of mystical and unknown spaces. This is what allows us to see things from this perspective.
The unjust and illegal practice of sharecropping gets a harsh spotlight from you here, but just like in your other films, politics are more of a backdrop than a chance for you to get up on a soapbox. How do you make sure the inequalities you portray inform the film without overpowering them?
For me, it was very important to talk about things that, in the past, have remained in the past but aren’t solved. My way of looking at the past is by no means nostalgic, but not at all a rhetorical kind of looking at the past. It’s not something gone and therefore we miss it. It’s something that hasn’t been solved. I felt that we no longer have time because the world changes very quickly. Therefore, it’s not like I could talk about this at a later stage. Now is the time to make this movie. It’s true, people migrate because they’re escaping from a big deception. There are people that are responsible for this deception, made their lives ugly, deceived them without solving the issues [that made them migrate]—and, actually, confounding them. Therefore, this kind of meaning, which in a way could be a bit rhetorical and boring—well, we go beyond that. And the reason we manage not to fall into this trap is that we have this gaze, the gaze of a child, which is somewhat lighthearted. Every tragedy tends to have a component which could be ridiculous in and of itself. It depends on the perspective toward it.
Part of Lazzaro’s appeal to the people around him is his meekness and quiet workmanship. How did you settle on a way to convey that without ever letting him become some kind of passive wallflower?
I think the great power of Adriano the actor is that he succeeded in never judging the character, never considering him stupid. He approached it as if he was a window, not a wall—so, a way to look at other things, a new gaze. This sort of strange sanctity without miracles is something which, in the past, he had a role of the person who is exploited. In the present, it can generate fear and scare us because he’s no longer the person we exploit. How did we pull that off? We pulled that off because the story is a fable or fairy tale, so you have a clear-cut distinction between the good guy and bad guy with no ambiguity there. Regarding this specific character, the actor managed never to judge it, and it came across as authentic.
And many times, they tell you, “You have to know everything about your characters!” Like, if they had orange juice or coffee in the morning, if they like this—and in fact, we didn’t know anything about Lazzaro. He was a mystery. This was also true for the actor himself and the rest of the crew. In the movie, he has a line where says he doesn’t know who his parents are and who he is—that was true. I didn’t know all those things, so there was no higher power who knew all these things. We say that he was found under a cabbage, and that’s what he wanted, and we respected his wishes.
Had Adriano acted before?
I think he will never do [it] again!
How do you approach directing non-actors? You still have beats in mind that you want to get, but you also really want something intangible that they have to offer in being rather than performing.
We create a hybrid world in which we have professional and non-professional actors working side by side. And this is important because they are a source of inspiration for each other. It creates a sort of halfway world where each set needs to lean in and learn from the other.
Translation by Lilia Pino Blouin