Lazzaro Felice: an examination through dialogue, part 1

The following is a dialogue of two poets on Alice Rohrwacher’s 2018 film Lazzaro Felice (English title: Happy as Lazzaro). Part 2 is here.

John Wall Barger’s poems appear in American Poetry Review, Rattle, The Awl, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, “Smog Mother,” was co-winner of The Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fourth book, The Mean Game, is coming out with Palimpsest Press in spring 2019. He lives in West Philadelphia, and is an editor for Painted Bride Quarterly. ▨

Vasiliki Katsarou’s poems have been published widely and internationally, including in NOON: Journal of the Short Poem (Japan), Corbel Stone Press’ Contemporary Poetry Series (U.K.), Regime Journal (Australia), Mediterranean Poetry (Denmark) as well as in Otoliths, Poetry Daily, Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature, Wild River Review, wicked alice, Literary Mama, La Vague Journal, and Contemporary American Voices. She is the author of a full-length poetry collection, Memento Tsunami, and co-editor of two contemporary poetry anthologies: Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems and Dark as a Hazel Eye: Coffee & Chocolate Poems. She has been invited to read her poetry at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, and is affiliated with New Jersey’s Hunterdon Art Museum and the multimedia art center ArtYard. She holds an MFA from Boston University and an A.B. Phi Beta Kappa in comparative literature from Harvard College. In addition to poetry, Vasiliki wrote and directed an award-winning 35mm short film, Fruitlands 1843, about a Transcendentalist utopian community in Massachusetts. ▨

Vasiliki Katsarou: John, I’m so glad we’ve decided to engage with this film by Alice Rohrwacher. I was flabbergasted by it, and delighted to discover it was written and directed by a woman. And not only that, but also that Rohrwacher’s films have garnered awards in Cannes, and the attention of Martin Scorsese, who is an executive producer of Lazzaro Felice.

The title character in Lazzaro Felice is a teenaged farmhand who lives with other sharecroppers on an Italian aristocrat’s property called Inviolata. He is the through-line in a film that ranges in both space and time, starting off in an indeterminate recent past and ending up in a recognizable urban present. He is a naïf, who dutifully fulfills the wishes of his family and his bosses. He enters into a friendship with the son of the aristocratic Marchesa, and gradually the film transforms into something other than how it began. The political, psychological, and mythical resonances of this friendship create waves that push the narrative forward.

From interviews I’ve read with her, it seems she cast a combination of professionals and non-actors, and the filming was loose and somewhat improvisational. The story had been in the works for over five years, and she wrote the script while in New York City as a filmmaker-in-residence at the New York Film Festival in 2016.

It was very satisfying for me to discover how Lazzaro Felice rewards close viewing and even very detailed viewing and re-viewing. After rewatching just the first few minutes, this is how it registers:

A tinny poorly recorded voice-over cements the credits to the start of the film, and then a dark scene with characters shot from afar with a telephoto lens, that makes one think of an ultra-realistic “undercover” reportage. From there, the viewer goes inside the house, with the lighting still rough, and is introduced to a family perhaps, in medias res, and then back outside where we have folk music, a courting scene—a documentary of folk traditions. The relationship between these two groups—men outside, and women inside—is still unclear. When the lights come on inside, you have a lovely grouping of young girls all dressed in white. Almost too many girls to be just one family…And the lighting has changed. From the suboptimal lighting of just before, we now have a more lyrical, expressive backlighting (and already a nod to Tarkovsky, I would argue). The girls suddenly appear as Muses (the girl who is being serenaded: Mariagrazia—suggesting the Graces), and the film now takes on shades of myth. In the next scene, this mythic lens is complicated by a traveling shot across slumbering old men and women, etc—we are back to a more documentary scene. So really, this shift between different film modes is introduced to us almost immediately. [This isn’t so much the case with her previous film (Le Meraviglie/The Wonders) where the mode slips into myth later in the narrative.]

We, as viewers, are wondering what kind of tale this will evolve into.

John Wall Barger: Rohrwacher’s 2014 film The Wonders begins in a similarly mythic mode. Like Lazzaro Felice, The Wonders begins in the dark with flickering lights: in this case, the headlights of the hunters in the forest. This, as you say, suggests myth, liminality, dream; what follows, we’re meant to understand, will not be a traditional story, but one which follows some kind of dream logic. The Wonders, as you mention about Lazzaro Felice, begins in medias res, mid-story, with the bee keepers in their humble house. Again, the women seem like the center of the action, with the men on the outside.

In Lazzaro Felice, amid the darkness and flickering lights, a precious light bulb is carried ceremoniously from one room to another, and the film begins in the manner of an epic, with a celebration. It is a wedding, or not quite a wedding but a proposal in song. So Rohrwacher has set us up for a “big,” dream-like, mythic story. We, as viewers, are wondering what kind of tale this will evolve into. That is when the wedding, or the union of the bride and groom, is put off by the corrupt Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (the Marquise), who has a stranglehold over the little community. Already the story has shifted from documentary to myth, and to political allegory.

We begin in rapt admiration of this community. The name of the village, as you mentioned, is Inviolata: inviolable, or strong, impregnable, sacrosanct. The villagers are resourceful: eating together, working together, sleeping side by side, singing, handing their light bulbs back and forth with care, and so on. But, the closer we get to them, the more we see that they are actually overworked sharecroppers, struggling all day in tobacco fields, feeling constantly in debt to the Marquise.

We overhear the manipulative Marquise “teaching” local children: “One should go beyond,” she instructs them, “the thirst for knowledge that is the root of distraction and disappointment…What good is knowledge without a fear of God? A humble farmhand is far better at serving God than the most erudite scholar who neglects himself and his studies.” We see Nicola—the right arm of the Marquise—offering candy to children, then cruelly tallying the debt of these penniless farmers. But the farmers remain strong and unbroken, funny and united, throughout the film. The Marquise, on the other hand, is publicly disgraced for her part in “The Great Swindle.”

VK: Yes, indeed, the rather shocking backstory of modern-day exploitation is based on an actual case in Italy. I haven’t been able to pinpoint which exact year(s) the actual events happened, but the farmworkers in this film do seem forgotten by time, and it’s unclear, when we see them in their simple work clothes, whether it’s 1880 or 1980. It’s a surprise when the owner’s son Tancredi pulls out his cumbersome square cellphone and we can place the action in the present-day. The references to the Marchesa as the “Cigarette Queen” and the florid art nouveau set design of the palazzo and important household items like the musical cigarette dispenser, inject a touch of whimsy and even absurdity to the film, and highlight the gap between the wealthy and the workers. And then we also hear a telling exchange between Tancredi and his mother, as they watch Lazzaro from above obeying the sundry demands of everyone—“we exploit them, and they exploit him” and that’s how it goes…When Tancredi points out—“but what if Lazzaro doesn’t exploit anyone?” his mother the Marchesa responds, “that’s not possible.” Life is strife, a struggle of the strong and the weak, in the eyes of the Marchesa. Later on, she suggests she has enslaved these “ignorant” sharecroppers—who are “like animals”—for their own good. “When you set them free, they realize they are slaves and they suffer.” What a succinct and brutal political credo! To me, so much of the “goodness” of Lazzaro has to do with this question of the difference between the animal and the human. How is human nature different? Is it?

…so much of the “goodness” of Lazzaro has to do with this question of the difference between the animal and the human.

JWB:  You’ve touched on some of the turns, or shifts, Rohrwacher takes in her film. Like deft slights of hand, we move through time, place, perspective, and—most riveting to me—the mode of the film itself. I love the way Lazzaro Felice begins in a documentary style, then moves to mythic, to political, to what I think of as allegorical or psychological terrain. The film continually makes us bend to process it; we don’t always intuitively know how to follow it.

The character of Lazzaro seems at first like a normal farmer, if a bit naïve or spacey. He is gullible and generous. Rohrwacher frequently portrays him staring off into middle distance, in his own world. He helps the son of the Marquise, Tancredi, even though Tancredi seems to be manipulating him. Lazzaro contracts a fever, falls off a cliff, and then the narrative style shifts dramatically. We hear the story of the wolf and the saint, and there is a time leap: thirty years pass, and Lazzaro looks exactly the same. He steps out of the village into a city, intending to track down his fellow villagers.

Suddenly we are not in a documentary-style story about quaint farmers, but in a surreal allegory, in a modern Italian city. These dramatic shifts send me, as a viewer, spiraling in search of ballast, grasping for analogies. The structure suddenly reminds me of a few other “bent” stories: the novel, Orlando, by Virginia Woolf; the film, Being There, written by Jerzy Kosiński and directed by Hal Ashby; and the novel, Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. It might be useful, as points of comparison, to touch on each of these.

In Orlando, the main character is born a male nobleman in England in the 16th century. Orlando’s gender changes, mysteriously, at the age of 30, and Orlando lives on for more than 300 years into modern times without growing old. While this story is a type of allegory exploring an ageless, uncanny protagonist, it differs from Lazzaro in crucial ways. I would argue that Woolf’s book, having a lot more time and space to maneuver, is a more complex story, involving love, sexuality, and culture. I think that, as much as the register of Rohrwacher’s story changes, it is a relatively simple exploration of human goodness.

Being There is another surreal, allegorical story. Chance (played by the arch-charismatic Peter Sellers) is, like Lazzaro, apparently simple-minded, spending his entire life working in his garden in the house of an old, wealthy man. Also like Lazzaro, Chance appears to inhabit a kind of steadiness and wisdom, as opposed to the fools and opportunists around him. But Being There is, I think, a quaint, rather than “bent,” film. Chance—who gleans all his knowledge from TV—is not literally outside of time, but just gives that impression because he never leaves the property. While both characters have a sense of inviolability, Lazzaro steps through time and violence like a god. Rohrwacher has widened the scope of her film into a realm of myth and timeless questions.

Of all the examples I could think of, Lazzaro seems closest to Vonnegut’s character, Billy Pilgrim, in Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut’s novel can be thought of as “literate” science fiction, set during and after World War II. Billy Pilgrim is a (hapless) soldier: shell-shocked, with PTSD; to those around him, he appears to be wandering around dazed and stupid. But there is another side to him, which we visit through (charming, postmodernist) omniscient narration: Billy has a nobility, and becomes a kind of paragon of goodness. Vonnegut describes Billy as “unstuck in time”: at a wedding in 1968 one moment, then suddenly on a different planet undergoing experiments by an alien race. I think Vonnegut chose the sci-fi form of his novel to reflect Billy’s psychological state. Scenes shift back and forth in time and dimension to reflect Billy’s shattered psychology. Over time and various dimensions, we are convinced—in both Lazzaro and Slaughterhouse Five—to admire the goodness of the main characters

Although there are psychological elements to Lazzaro Felice, as I watch the film my impression is that Rohrwacher is fascinated by the idea of Lazzaro, rather than Lazzaro’s inner world. The environment around Lazzaro twists and turns and bends—violently, cruelly—and we witness how he responds. He remains generous, full of goodness and strength. His sacrosanct goodness seems to be the very point of the film.

Over time and various dimensions, we are convincedto admire the goodness of the main characters.

VK: Yes, I do agree with you that Rohrwacher makes us “bend to process it.” She subverts expectations about the three-act story arc in a film. What a wide variety of literary references are called up for you by Lazzaro Felice! I would add that I heard echoes of  Pasolini’s Teorama—the stranger who comes to subvert the household—and of course the story of St. Francis who is the son of a nobleman and decides to live in poverty, and who is connected to both the animal and natural world. I suppose you could see Tancredi/Lazzaro as the two halves of St. Francis. And they indeed call themselves (half) brothers in the film.

I confess that I come at this film as a one-time filmmaker myself, and look at it as a cinematic text more than a literary one. There is a poetry to the whole that is not easily pulled apart into its constituent literary/thematic parts. It is political, as we’ll discuss, but calling it a Marxist allegory is perhaps too reductive. It certainly is not propaganda for any particular political group, though I agree its politics are more left than right.

Similarly, I can’t bring myself to call her a “Catholic filmmaker.” She is clearly inspired by that tradition. (Lazzaro is of course, Italian for Lazarus, so it’s appropriate for a character who falls off a cliff, appears dead, and then somehow comes back to life…) But she is also somewhat outside this religious tradition, questioning it—as the inhospitable nuns, and the music floating free of the Church would suggest.

The urban setting of this latter part of the film is eerily futuristic, dystopian even, in its shots of cell phone towers, abandoned construction areas, and the strange empty gasoline tank that the Inviolata family are squatting in. What a contrast to the cathedral freighted with artwork and gold detail!

In an interview by Marshall Shaffer of Slant magazine, Rohrwacher states: “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.”

The second part of this dialogue is continued here.

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