By Anna Husted EBS Film Critic
As much as I love streaming movies at home, streaming services are negatively impacting theaters worldwide. I am reluctant to write about a film that only had a limited theatrical release. At the same time, streaming services make foreign films available without having to wait a year for them to be distributed to the U.S. One such release is Alice Rohrwacher’s Italian fable “Happy as Lazzaro.”
“Happy as Lazzaro” is not what you’d expect. Based in modern times, but what feels like the 1930s, this offbeat dark comedy opens with an Italian peasant family sharing a lightbulb as they move from room to room. Protagonist Lazzaro (an Andy Kaufman-esque Adriano Tardiolo) is a dimwitted but kind worker for a tobacco heiress, who is running the farm illegally with indentured servants that don’t know they’re supposed to be paid.
Lazzaro happily does whatever is requested of him because he genuinely wants to help. He plays the holy fool to the point of being exploited by rich and poor alike.
When Tancredi, the son of the tobacco heiress, runs away from home, he and Lazzaro form a strong albeit one-sided friendship that takes them both away from the farm and into the big city. The film then appears to transcend time and space. Some characters age while Lazzaro stays the same age, and his character represents hope and light existing among the darkness of evil and human depravity.
“Happy as Lazzaro” is director Rohrwacher’s third feature film, and her best by far. She creates a world that exists yesterday, today and in the future, where troubled times cannot defeat the power of the human heart to care and love all those around them—no matter their social status.
One of my favorite moments comes after city peasants exploit Lazzaro as he helps them sell goods because he has a “kind face.” They return to the peasants’ downtrodden block where Lazzaro points out all the edible food growing right out of the sidewalks. The peasants are the happiest you’ve seen them showing pure excitement at the ability to have fresh food. In return the peasants continue to use Lazzaro for his kindness (or aloofness).
Lazzaro shows love and mercy when there is none in return because he is a true sacrificial character who will stop at nothing to help others. He appears in nearly every scene of the film, transforming others’ selfish acts into blessings even when the people around him do not deserve it.
Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore says seeing a film in theaters is like seeing artwork in a gallery. No Mona Lisa replica will ever beat witnessing the real Da Vinci painting at the Louvre. Sadly, because we don’t live in one of the major cities where “Happy as Lazzaro” was released we can only see it on our small screens at home. Take time to appreciate the films you get to watch on the big screen because there will always be the one film that you wish you didn’t have to watch at home. “Happy as Lazzaro” is one of those. And it deserves more time on the big screen.
“Happy as Lazzaro” is available to stream on Netflix.
Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky, she can be found up on the hill or at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s skiing, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.