PEOPLE who are heavenly-minded may risk being no earthly good. A first glance at a remarkable new film, Happy as Lazzaro (Cert. 12A), may confirm that view, but that would be misleading.
The film’s eponymous young peasant (Adriano Tardiolo in his acting debut) is a well-meaning character seeing the best in everyone. He lives in Inviolata, a village of central Italy. It’s the mid-1980s; and yet tobacco farmers live a feudal-like existence. The dominating Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi) constantly cheats them out of their dues, for ever rendering them debtors. A broken bridge prevents any escape. While it is soon apparent that the film is being played as fable, the scenario is based on a real incident in which an estate owner maintained the practice of sharecropping long after it became illegal.
The Marchesa’s son Tancredi (the singer Luca Chikovani) himself feels trapped, and asks Lazzaro to kidnap him in a bid for freedom. There is a realisation that they could be half-brothers, on account of the nobleman’s womanising father. In effect, peasant remains subservient to a manipulative master.
It is shortly after this point that the film’s neo-realism also embraces elements of Fellini’s magical fantasies. Lazzaro falls to his death, only to be resurrected. It is hardly a surprise, considering the biblical name (meaning that God has helped) that the young man bears. St John’s Gospel presents the raising of Lazarus as a demonstrated sign-miracle accompanying Christ’s claiming to be the resurrection and the life. The body ultimately perishes. Life Eternal doesn’t.
In the film, as in scripture, Lazzaro/Lazarus is gifted with this. He ends up in urban-industrial surroundings, a good 20 years later. Old friends and family (unlike him, looking their age) have migrated there in the naïve hope of better things. What the Marchesa had predicted proves true. They have given up one kind of organised cruelty only to experience even worse exploitation.
Lazzaro continues to live a sanctified life. Cinematically, he has several notable forebears — Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Peter Sellers (Being There), etc. — in whom there is no guile, at home wherever they are, and living the way in which we were meant to. Lazzaro is unaware of his sanctity. For him, this is the only life script that he has. It is also possible to detect the other Lazarus in this film: the one mentioned in the parable recorded in St Luke’s Gospel. Tancredi is rich man to Lazzaro’s pauper. It is clear which of their lives has the aura of eternity.
As in Alice Rohrwacher’s first film, Corpo Celeste (Arts, 6 April 2012), this heavenly quality may not necessarily be found in places of worship. There is a scene in which Lazzaro’s companions are shooed out of a city church by nuns as they listen to Bach’s version of Psalm 51 (“O God be merciful to me”). This is a private function, they are told. The music abandons the building and follows them on to the street. The director has said: “We’re speaking here of a religion of humanity, not of a well-administered official religion with its dazzling robes and weekly rules.” The Risen Life is out there for anyone open to its possibilities.