Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro conjures up the village of Inviolata as if from the distant past. The people here all seem to work as farmers, and their garb suggests peasant wear from the early 20th century. Inside one home, two sisters fight for the use of a communal lightbulb. A courting ritual between one of the girls and her suitor begins and ends as a communal effort: first with the young man surrounded by friends and singing his beloved’s name on the street, then with the couple announcing their betrothal to a large and noisy gathering of friends and family. Soon, though, we begin to catch more and more glimpses of such things as audio players and cellphones and realize that the strange lack of tension in the film between modernity, which conceives of itself as standing upon the apex of human development, and tradition indicates that a spectacle of gaslighting is at work here.
The clues that reveal that Inviolata’s residents have been obliviously trapped in amber gradually fall into place in Happy as Lazzaro’s first quarter: If life in this hamlet suggests a kind of feudal vestige it’s because the people here, across all generations, work as sharecroppers. Italy officially outlawed the practice in 1980, but it’s eventually disclosed that Inviolata’s people have been kept ignorant of this change by their overlord, Marquise Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), a tobacco baroness who maintains her ruse thanks to the village being cut off from the rest of the world as a result of a massive and not-so-recent flood in the area. Though Alfonsina herself has little access to the rest of Italy, she continues to rule the area like her own personal fiefdom. When her teenage son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), a vision of new-wave cool in his shoulder-padded jacket and perfectly coiffed platinum hair, asks why she maintains this ruse, Alfonsina replies that giving the people their freedom would open their eyes to the fact that they were previously enslaved, potentially inspiring an uprising against her exploitation.
Tancredi, all pouting teenage resentment, finds his emotional foil in Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a local boy whose pure guilelessness makes him amenable to any suggestion. (Tardiolo is an incredible discovery, projecting the blank innocence common to the at once awkward and naturalistic nonprofessional actors who often appeared in Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s religious and historically revisionist films.) Tancredi cannot help but be fascinated by how easily he can manipulate his new friend, and he hatches a plan to fake his kidnapping with Lazzaro’s help. Tancredi’s goal is to extort money from the marquise and make his way to the city. This leads to the young men hiding in the region’s hills, and to Alfonsina weighing her desire to get her son back without paying the ransom money against her fear of involving police lest they discover what she’s done to Inviolata’s inhabitants.
Rohrwacher mines the untenability of Alfonsina’s position for acidic satire, using subtle visual humor to poke fun at the marquise’s blinkered perspective. Inviolata is established in drab, earthen tones, but the palette of browns shifts to deep, verdant greens whenever the marquise traverses her realm, and the expensive, colorful clothing of her entourage cuts a sharp contrast against the worn, stained clothes of her sharecroppers. The inside of the marquise’s house, however, betrays the toxicity of her life’s work, an omnipresent haze of cigarette smoke attesting both to her cash crop and the carcinogenic decay she inflicts upon herself while hoarding wealth from her indentured servants. At one point, at the end of a montage of soaring helicopter shots of various panoramas, the filmmakers even stage a visual gag worthy of Monty Python. The hypnotic tone of the scene is dispelled when the camera passes over some of Inviolata’s residents, who, upon looking up and noticing that a helicopter is filming them, panic as if they’ve seen a dragon.
This moment prefigures a sudden shift forward in time to find Inviolata’s citizens now displaced into a nearby city. Lazzaro is there, too, except when he wakes up in the future he hasn’t aged a day. This change in time and place offers expanded possibilities for the film’s strange brand of comedy, but Rohrwacher simply doubles down on her view of laborers as a perpetually exploited class, updating Inviolata’s white serfs tilling without pay to a contemporary gig economy where multiethnic indigent and immigrant workers have to underbid each other for day jobs, all while their exploiting overlords slowly rot away in self-enforced isolation. It’s a shrewd observation, but one that Rohrwacher belabors in a way that she doesn’t in the first half, which illustrates rather than insists on the theme. Still, Happy as Lazzaro is one of the sharper, and funnier, recent films to reckon with the injustices of class disparities, and its smartest joke is centering its satire on its hyperbolically innocent protagonist, whose Candide-like naïveté makes him the object of fascination and reflexive resentment of nearly everyone he meets.