The Italian film director Alice Rohrwacher’s rise to the top has never been more obvious than this week at the Cannes Film Festival. Her third feature film, Happy as Lazzaro, which she wrote and directed, stunned the critics gathered in Cannes for what has been a very strong 71st edition.
A distinctive and yet quiet talent since her first film Corpo Celeste was selected at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight in 2011, followed three years later by her second film The Wonders, Alice Rohwacher has reached, at just 36, a maturity and force that echoes both Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ermanno Olmi.
Conceived as a diptych, Happy as Lazzaro is a poetic fable which starts in an enchanted and timeless Roman countryside and finishes in the asphalt jungle of industrial Turin. It features a community of hardworking illiterate farmers shamelessly exploited by a vile, degenerate aristocrat family. Among the farmers, the 16-year-old Lazzaro, always happy, helpful and kind, is being taken advantage of by everyone he crosses paths with. But he doesn’t seem to mind. With his big round eyes and peaceful smile, Lazzaro is a teenage saint.
The beautiful simplicity of both the tale and the images (shot on Super 16mm) will pierce the thickest of skins, breaking hearts the way Walt Disney’s 1940s masterpieces did when we were children. At the end of the screening, tears of gratitude ran down the face of many critics.
Behind the seeming childlike quality of Rohrwacher’s cinema hides an artist angry at the state of the world, and especially at the soul-corrupting economic liberalism which she sees as a new medievalism. If the first part of the film is set in an Italian Eden where ignorance is an ambiguous bliss, the second part shows a nightmare worthy of Andersen or the Grimm brothers in which Lazzaro’s simplicity and goodness (an innocence that will devastate the hardiest cynic) is even more painful to watch.
There were many other impressive and important films in Cannes this year, from Pawel Pawlikowski’s chilling jazzy black-and-white romance Cold War, Lee Chang-dong’s masterful love triangle film noir Burning and Matteo Garone’s operatic comic essay on gangsterism Dogman, but none had the profound and oneiric humanity of Happy as Lazzaro. For this alone, Lazzaro deserves the Palme d’Or.