Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice, Italy-Switzerland-France-Germany, 2018)

Happy?

At its best the experience of film is magical. By this I don’t mean the fantastical special effects that have become so commonplace that they no longer thrill but rather the moments when the sum of a film’s parts suddenly become more as a whole. Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is an example of this. The title, in English, seems to be based on the simile ‘happy as Larry’: this works in the sense that nothing gets Lazzaro down; he’s played with engaging blankness by debutant Adriano Tardiolo. He is a ‘simple’ ‘innocent’ who only want to please. I guess the name’s more likely reference is Lazarus for reasons I won’t divulge for fear of ‘spoiling’.

The first part of the film seems to be set in early 20th century rural Italy where sharecroppers eke out a meagre existence and use Lazzaro for the jobs they don’t want to do. Although they are exploitative, they do so with affection. The marquise, however, exploits with contempt and ensures the villagers remain in her debt. About half way through there is an abrupt change of tone that requires great confidence from a filmmaker to bring off; Rohrwacher succeeds.

The film is shot on Super 16mm in 1:1.63 ratio with the corners rounded giving an old fashioned feel to the look. The warmth of the rural environment is followed by the cold urban world of the city and at one level retains a social realist aesthetic narrating the lives of those ‘down at heel’. In one shocking sequence, migrant workers are seen outbidding one another for work: the lowest bid wins. Rohrwacher’s film is about exploitation in the ‘old world’ of Italy and in the new globalised world.

Social realism can, rightly, be grim but Happy as Lazzaro is leavened with humour and the ensemble cast, including Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister, are excellent; special mention must go to Sergi López who reminded me of Bob Hoskins in his prime. That said it isn’t a realist film so you will have to go see it to understand this contradiction.

Lazzaro is in a way he is like Voltaire’s Candide but he is not disillusioned when he enters the ‘real world’. Rather he retains his faith in humanity which, as Rohrwacher shows, is difficult in the face of exploitation but crucial if we are to retain our humanity. I need to catch up on her other films.

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Capernaum (Capharnaüm , Lebanon-France-USA, 2018)

A cure for dry eye

Nadine Labaki’s (she directed and co-wrote) astonishing film was ‘inspired‘ by the number of children, many Syrian refugees, on the streets of Beirut. Using a contrived, though nonetheless effective, device of Zain (above right) suing his parents for having brought him into the world, the film unfolds in flashback explaining what had come to pass. Such social realism, the film very much exists in the grime of poverty-stricken lives, is not new, however the brilliance of this film is rare. Much of the film’s power comes from Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea), a vagabond who finds himself looking after Yonas after the latter’s mother is arrested as an illegal. Not only do we see his indefatigable character do everything in his little power to look after the little one, but it’s done in an entirely convincing way. Like most of the actors in the film, Zain is a kid off the street, which no doubt feeds the immediacy of the drama.

This authenticity is down to Labaki’s brilliance (she also directed the superb Where Do We Go Now?) as she coaxes fantastic performances from amateurs and captures the drama with her camera. There are numerous shots on the street that are slightly high angle on the children serving to minimise the background. I noticed a few times feet walking into the frame and suddenly stop short as if they’d just noticed the camera. This suggests much of the shooting was not only done on location but without shutting down the street; incredibly difficult conditions in which to work no doubt. The result shows on the screen as the chaos (which is what capernaum means) is ingrained on the screen; actually ‘Hell’ might be a better title but that’s from a coddled western perspective.

It takes a lot for me to ‘tear up’ and blubbing is just about unknown but I only just managed to choke down the latter (to do so is a reflex). Of course that’s what melodrama is intended to do, though only the framing narrative device noted above is particularly melodramatic. Occasionally Labaki goes beyond social realism and the film takes wing; for example when well-meaning Christians go to raise the spirits of prisoners. The extended montage shows both prisoners joining in and those for whom nothing can alleviate their misery. It is a stunning sequence.

No doubt that this will be one of the best films I see this year and although I probably just favour Roma, I wished Labaki’s film had been acknowledged at the Oscars because this type of filmmaking needs more support than Cuarón. Everybody needs to know what’s happening in the world to be able to break out of their insularity and unfortunately Capernaum is very much about the world and now.