Though gently outraged in its portrait of class divisions, Happy As Lazzaro mostly takes its tonal cues from the eponymous character’s comically gentle, trusting nature.
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Lazzaro Felice has genuine sweep and grandeur, and Rohrwacher’s most impressive feat here might be her ability to find just the right narrative and emotional distance for each section of the story, as it moves from rustic drama to picaresque journey to more pointed social allegory; we’re always given just enough information to understand and appreciate the characters’ interactions and motivations.
The main problem of Happy as Lazzaro is that it's unclear what Rohrwacher finally wants to say in part two, which combines the near-documentary realism of her first feature with the occasional flights of fancy of her second.
The movie lulls you into its unpredictable rhythms, and a striking poetry creeps into the material, finally overtaking it.
The film, for all its interest in fables, trades less in morals than in equivocal, irony-laced human observation. Rohrwacher deftly skirts sentimentality even as she risks big, expansive poetic gestures.
With Happy as Lazzaro, Rohrwacher has crafted a magic-realist fable that doubles as an origin myth for a modern Italy subsumed by corruption and decline.
Beautifully shot, like Rohrwacher’s other features, on Super-16, this film, with its richly textured images, does indeed feel at times like a retrieved and rather miraculous relic from a lost era of cinema, which is not to say that it isn’t of its own moment.
Through a few dreamlike, discreet and beautifully placed sequences, Rohrwacher makes us believe that a world of empathy and accord may someday exist again.
You could argue that Lazzaro Felice owes a debt to Pasolini with its fascination for peasants, saints, and faces, or even Gabriel Garcia Marquez with its mix of rural life and magical realism, but that would be to discredit the shear vivacity and boldness of Rohrwacher’s directorial hand, not to mention her incredible warmth as a filmmaker.
If you can surrender to her peculiar vision, its beauty is undeniable; if not, impatience may set in long before the film winds down just past the two-hour mark.