Lazzaro Felice: an examination through dialogue, part 2

The following is a continuation from part 1 of a dialogue between poets John Wall Barger and Vasiliki Katsarou on Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro Felice.


JWB: What a fabulous passage by Rohrwacher. The “signs of many different eras” certainly sounds like an evocation of the contrasting rustic and urban settings of Lazzaro Felice.

And yes, Teorama! I also had Pasolini’s films in mind, particularly his first three: Accattone, Mamma Roma, and Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo. In each of these, a character emerges who is misunderstood and then crushed by the powers that be. These films lack the surreality of Lazzaro Felice, but they do seem like allegories—also Italian, under the shadow of San Pietro—where the structure of the film follows an idea embodied by the main character. For example, Accattone is a lower-class, impoverished pimp living on the liminal margins of Roman society. Once we viewers become curious about—or “hooked” by—the cruel Accattone character, we are willing to follow him through the film, regardless of its structure. Perhaps Rohrwacher is following a similar notion in Lazzaro Felice: once Lazzaro—the character, as well as the idea of goodness that he represents—has hooked us, we will follow the serpentine meandering of the film wherever it leads.

I’m wondering if you think that the structure of Lazzaro can be understood as a feminist gesture. I think for Pasolini, being gay and making art in Italy at that time, were both acts of transgression. His films seemed to become increasingly transgressive, with the most famous example perhaps being his last film, Salò, his brutal, almost plotless, depiction of sixteen youths who are kidnapped and misused by a group of men in Fascist Italy.

The traditional narrative structure of film—the three-act story arc—can be seen as patriarchal, and in need of updating/revision/cracking. To make a literary analogy, the wonderful poet Hoa Nguyen writes poems that disregard the themes and traditional narrative language of poetry. In the very language of her poems she seems to be arguing that we’ve inherited a semantics of colonialism (and patriarchy), which sorely needs updating.

I just watched Hannah Gadsby’s comedy performance, Nanette, where she questions stories and their structure, particularly the structure of comedy’s two basic parts, tension and release. Gadsby argues that you can’t fit a complicated story, with fascinating digressional details, into such a simple form. But then she succeeds in disrupting that very form right before our eyes. And she connects that disruption with her being a lesbian. My question is, since breaking an artistic form can be a kind of cultural transgression, is it possible that Rohrwacher’s non-traditional structure is a (conscious) dismissal of the patriarchal lens?

Is it possible that Rohrwacher’s non-traditional structure is a (conscious) dismissal of the patriarchal lens?

VK: That’s an interesting question. Years ago, I probably would have jumped on board and said, “Yes! It’s a deliberate feminist disruption of the patriarchy!” But my own experience as a woman artist over decades tells me that women artists are primarily individuals before they are women artists. My sense is that this film came about much more organically, and that the filmmaker’s own life history, education, experiences, fed into her creativity, which all resulted in this artwork.

However, along these feminist lines, it might be fruitful to consider how the other main character, Antonia, is presented. She has many more actual lines in the film, and a clear narrative progression from teen mother to survivor. When she comes across Lazzaro again, and he hasn’t aged at all, she bows down before him, as if to venerate him as a holy person. Then she insists on giving him the shirt/jacket off her husband’s back and taking him in. Is she also not a “good” person? There is something sly and subversive on the part of Rohrwacher to create a male protagonist with virtually no voiced self-reflection or actual lines (besides his confession to Tancredi that he has no parents and only a female progenitor—a grandmother), and then weave a narrative of strong/complex women around him (Antonia, Teresa, the Marchesa). And yet have the film presumably be about this male character.

By the way, in that same interview with Slant, Alice Rohrwacher points out that the English translation “happy as” is not exactly accurate: “In Italian, it’s slightly different. It’s not “happy as Lazzaro” but “happy Lazzaro.” That’s something you say when you see somebody who’s poor and therefore has nothing left to lose. For example, if you see a homeless person who’s actually singing and being happy, you say, “Oh look, a happy Lazzaro.”  

JWB: That’s a great distinction to make. Lazzaro certainly does walk around as if he’s got nothing left to lose, while also seeming as if he’s keeping a secret, like the cat that ate the canary. I was also wondering, in fact, about the Italianness of the film. After all, quirky as it is, it doesn’t feel as if it could have been made anywhere else. But why? One way to address this is to consider the way it explores Catholicism. Lazzaro, and his “inviolable” goodness, is arguably the focus. Lazzaro is tested—he is tricked, contracts a fever, falls off a cliff, is threatened with a knife, is hopelessly lost—and always emerges unscathed, dignified, worthy. This (again) makes me think the film is exploring the idea of goodness itself, told through the allegory of Lazzaro. It reminds me of the many allegories in Pasolini’s films.

While Lazzaro, as we have mentioned, touches upon a few different narrative registers, the film descends into full allegory about one third of the way through, when feverish Lazzaro falls off a cliff. We assume he is dead. Antonia (who is, at this point, a teenager from the village) tells us the story of a wolf and a saint:

Let me tell you a story, the story of a wolf. A very old wolf had become decrepit. He couldn’t hunt wild animals anymore. So he was excluded from the pack. And the old wolf went to the houses to steal animals, chickens, sheep. He was hungry. The villagers tried to kill him in every way possible, but they didn’t succeed. They stood guard every night. They set traps, nets…it was as if he were invisible…There was a rumor of a saint who could talk to animals. That they understood, and obeyed him. So they went to get him. The saint agreed to talk to the wolf to ask for a truce. So he set out to find him. The saint walked for such a long time. For miles and miles. Then winter came. The saint is exhausted. He’s cold, starving. But he sees no sign of the wolf. He doesn’t know that the wolf is hungry, too. And that he’s been on his trail for a while. The saint falls, exhausted, in the snow. And that’s where the wolf finds him. So the wolf approaches. He sharpens his claws and teeth, ready to devour him, but he smells something he has never smelled before, and he stops. He sniffs him all over. What was that smell? It was the smell…of a good man.

As we hear this voice-over, the camera pans the area around the village: surreal bare hills, very dream-like, highlighting the psychological, I think. The allegory is not straightforward, but Lazzaro certainly seems to be the “good man,” and possibly also the saint. Later it seems as if he might also be the wolf.

…something sly and subversive…of Rohrwacher to create a male protagonist with virtually no voiced self-reflection or actual lines…and then weave a narrative of strong/complex women around him…

VK: Yes, you highlight a most amazing section of the film. It comes about halfway through, as Lazzaro falls into a fever, falls off a cliff, and then we have those awesome bird’s-eye POV shots of the barren moonlike landscape, which underscore the inexorableness of nature. An eerie silence underlies these floating aerial shots that to me suggests an otherworldly presence, beyond any particular psychological symbolism. Then, faint helicopter sounds fade into the soundtrack, and the camera dips a little closer to the earth, as it flies above the sharecroppers who are looking up at what becomes a helicopter…Soon we have the scene of this group being released from their debt-bondage by the carabinieri…and their traversal of the (very shallow) river…This is linked to the shot of Lazzaro about to wake from his deep sleep on the other side of his dramatic fall. Just as he is waking from this fever dream, he is sniffed by a wolf, as the voice-over you’ve helpfully quoted above comes to its conclusion. He rouses himself, and goes back to the villa of the Marchesa de Luna, but now it is long-abandoned, and time seems to have marched forward quite a bit. He comes upon thieves ransacking the villa, etc…The rest of the film takes place in a more or less contemporary, urban environment, with glimpses of other, multicultural refugees—scenes unfortunately all too familiar to us these days. It is as if the film begins again at this point.

I’m just so fascinated by this. It’s difficult to untangle the “religious” good man/saint motif from the political ramifications of the story of the sharecroppers duped by their own naivete/lack of proper education into thinking they must stay on serving the Marchesa, despite the fact that in modern-day Italy this arrangement has been outlawed. (The scenes of the Marchesa inculcating the children in Bible verses which justify this arrangement are especially damning.)

JWB: I agree that the film seems to start anew at this point (i.e., after the fever, when “Lazarus” is born again). Rohrwacher’s various filmic techniques—documentary, allegory, political—come to a head and are allowed to remain deliciously unreconciled. As we watch Lazzaro wandering around the urban landscape, in his same farmer’s clothes from thirty years before, the film attains a luminous sublimity. We viewers are still wondering what kind of film we are watching, but rather than feeling frustrated by the ambiguity of it, we are utterly riveted.

Perhaps there would be no completely satisfying ending to such a film, which has elevated our expectations of the narrative form itself. But I must confess that I was surprised by Lazzaro’s (apparent) death at the end. In the scene, Lazzaro enters a bank, in a characteristically naive attempt to help the now-aging Tancredi, who says that the bank has taken his money. This episode felt less organic to me than any other in the film, as if perhaps Rohrwacher were attempting to force closure, to find a line through the many threads she’d introduced. The people in the bank feel threatened by Lazzaro, who they think has a weapon (it’s just a slingshot, gift from young-Tancredi). Lazzaro—inviolable Lazzaro, always so mild and amicable!—dies from the punches of the customers at the bank…Hmm. I’m not sure. Unless perhaps Rohrwacher’s whole point is to subvert our expectations, again.

To me the film found its natural ending a bit earlier, when Lazzaro and the ragtag villagers are asked to leave a church by a disgruntled nun, and the uncanny organ music of the church mysteriously follows them out into the city as they walk. Such a lovely, melancholy scene, binding them together, yet again, across their various adventures. It reminds me of the famous end of Fellini’s Le Notti di Cabiria, when Giulietta Masina is walking along the road in that impromptu parade, with a happy/sad/inviolable look on her face.

We viewers are still wondering what kind of film we are watching, but rather than feeling frustrated by the ambiguity of it, we are utterly riveted.

VK: This question of the “natural ending” of the film is another example of what makes Lazzaro Felice so interesting for me. The whole second half of the film ratchets up the political stakes. We have the displaced sharecroppers struggling to make a life in a now-urban environment, where they are reduced to petty thievery, trafficking fraudulent goods, and scrounging for greens by the side of the roadway. They become part of the displaced underclass that melds in with refugees from Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere—as is evident from the scene where Nicola, the foreman on Inviolata, now serves as a middleman offering jobs for very low pay to assembled refugees, including Lazzaro. In this second half of the film, Tancredi is a middle-aged dissipated man who has become dispossessed of whatever “fortune” he may have had, possibly through fraudulent bank loans, as is suggested by the scene in which the bank representative initially welcomes his business, but then realizes who he is and throws him out of the bank. The old class system no longer strictly applies in this (post) modern (or shall we say neo-liberal?) European world.

This provides the bitter irony to the scene in which the impoverished Inviolata group are delighted and honored to be invited to Tancredi’s Rome apartment, and spend precious euros on overpriced pastries, only to arrive at his door and have their invitation rescinded by Tancredi at the last minute. Then, to add insult to injury, they are somehow compelled to give up their expensive pastries to Tancredi’s greedy or possibly hungry girlfriend. This is the poor subsidizing (gifting) the less-poor/more wealthy in a particular and absurd example.

The bank scene is a variation on this same theme. From my time in Greece, the double door security of the regular neighborhood bank is familiar and tediously frustrating. As is the “take a ticket, wait in line, possibly for hour(s)” formality of European banks. The fact that Lazzaro is oblivious to the rules of the game in the neighborhood bank is heartbreakingly appropriate. The fact that he is attacked by regular, “nice people,” neighborhood bank customers, who are in fear and fatally mistake his intentions, makes this scene even more powerful than it would have been had the police swept in and arrested him.

The less educated, and less financially fortunate are pitted against each other, while the more well-to-do float above the fray and benefit from the strife. Circumstances in the US and Europe in 2019 clearly bear this scenario out.

The camera moves in, so the viewer is deprived of a wider shot, and a wider context, and is compelled to identify with Lazzaro’s point-of-view…how limited it is. We glimpse through his POV—the wolf who reappears in these last scenes. The wolf is hunger…whose hunger? Only Lazzaro’s? I don’t think so. What are we hungry for? Where is our sustenance? As the bank customers pile on, hitting and beating Lazzaro, the wolf flees the bank, heads into traffic, flees toward us…In this last shot, the viewer is implicated: What are we hungry for?

Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Release Year: 2018
Runtime: 130 minutes

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