The men and women, boys and girls crowd into the kitchen of a small house, laughing and teasing and drinking. One of the young workers who plow the fields of a tobacco farm, on the Lazio region estate where these rural laborers live, has just serenaded his true love; the young woman’s sisters tease the suitor from the window. Then they let the inebriated singers into the household, all chaos and clutter and loud celebrating. Even the dimmest of the bunch — well, not dim, but certainly the most naive — of the group, a teenager named Lazarro (Adriano Tardiolo), is joining in, picking up the resident elderly grandmother clad in widow’s black and physically moving her over to the festivities. Everyone raises a ruckus before the dawn breaks, when they’ll have to toil under the hot sun for the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi).
It’s boisterous bedlam, Italian style, in other words. And it’s the sort of opening scene that suggests writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, one of the brightest lights of the country’s contemporary cinematic output, is casting her glance backwards to the days of Rosselini-to-Taviani neorealism. Hard-working peasants, hardscrabble lives, sweat and tears and mischievous bambinos, a landscape of brown earth and green-stalked fields — you immediately get a sense of the world the film takes place in, if not who’s who or what’s what. Not immediately, at least: If you’ve seen the 36-year-old filmmaker’s previous work Corpo Celeste (2011) and The Wonders (2014), you know that she likes to keep things cryptic as long as she possibly can. You also might guess that she potentially has something up her sleeve.
So she throws this poverty-class clan, including a young mother named Antonia (Agnese Graziani), and a fast-talking foreman into the middle of a domestic tug-of-war. On one side is the “Queen of Cigarettes” who oversees this mini-empire and whose philosophy is summed up as “Everyone exploits everyone else.” (The fact that the village they reside is officially dubbed “Inviolata” is telling.) On the other side is her son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), a spoiled rich kid with dyed blonde hair and a rebellious streak. Lazarro, ever the easily won-over innocent, ends up showing the heir to Inviolata’s throne his own special hiding place deep in the hills. When the teen goes missing, everyone starts scouring the countryside. Only our holy fool of a hero knows where he is. That, and the fact that Tancredi is faking an abduction so he can make his mother look ridiculous.
Now Happy as Lazarro starts to resemble a caustic tale of class warfare, in which the hapless, childlike lug and his atrocious aristocratic counterpart play out labor v. capital’s tragi-parasitic relationship, while adding in vaguely homoerotic overtones. (Luchino Visconti, come to the white courtesy phone!) Indeed, it’s only slightly shocking when we find out that the Marchesa has been indulging in a vintage, illegal serfs-and-turf scenario with her “employees.” Then a major incident occurs. A reset button of sorts is pushed. Time passes for some, while not for others. Wolves come into play, as they so often do. Suddenly, we’ve taken a hard left into magical-realism territory. Any Biblical overtones you may notice in characters’ monikers might not be coincidental.
Rohrwacher guides her cast, which grows to include her regular collaborator/sister Alba Rohrwacher (Hungry Hearts, Ismael’s Ghosts) and veteran Spanish actor Sergi López (Pan’s Labyrinth), through this parable with a deft hand; Tardiolo, especially, plays his simple young man, all wide eyes and bulky trapezius muscles, with a guilelessness that slyly acts as a sounding board for other, more reactive performances. It’s also not a surprise that the film won a Best Screenplay award at Cannes, given how it seeds so much of the second half’s turns in its unassuming first hour. A handful of shots, including a memorable image of a couple canoodling in a field and an unlikely reunion in the back of furniture-filled truck, are worth the price of admission alone.
But what starts out as an impressive mix of various classic-Italian-cinema strains turns into something much richer, rewarding and singular. Rohrwacher isn’t interested in resurrecting the ghosts of movies past so much as channeling the spirit of the Brothers Grimm and modern-day anger. She does not want to just show you pretty pictures, but a genuine vision. And it’s a vision that confirms the days of bold, ambitious, odd-as-fuck moviemaking — from a country that doesn’t quite spit out auteurs like it used to — are, quite appropriately, not dead yet.