A startling rupture occurs almost exactly halfway through “Happy as Lazzaro,” a sly enchantment of a movie from the gifted Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher. The picture we thought we were watching — a gentle, observant portrait of a group of farmworkers dwelling somewhere in the Italian countryside — abruptly dissolves and resets itself. A previously unheard narrator begins to speak, telling a story about a hungry old wolf and a world-weary saint who has the power to talk to animals.
How that lupine legend dovetails with the events we’ve been following, and the events still to come, is best left for you to discover. Rohrwacher, writing and directing her third feature, works in a modest, rough-hewn style that nonetheless feels kissed by a strange and melancholy magic. “Happy as Lazzaro” is slow to reveal its full shape: It’s a realist snapshot of downtrodden lives that gradually takes on shadings of fable and myth, a deceptively plain story that, by the end, all but glows with wonderment and surprise.
Perhaps the most startling thing about its many twists and turns — which Rohrwacher unwraps with patient, light-fingered skill — is that they well up from an insistently moral vision. The first half takes place on the ironically named Inviolata, a large, isolated tobacco farm owned by the wealthy Marquise de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi) — she’s referred to in the press as “the Cigarette Queen” — who oversees about 50 men, women and children who work and live on her estate. The lowliest of these sharecroppers is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a young man who has the delicate features of a Raphaelite prince, and who greets every fresh indignity and insult with a beatific half-smile.
Lazzaro is a pure-hearted innocent, what you might call a holy fool. He is good, you suspect, because he has no comprehension of human evil. He runs errands and fetches coffee for the other workers even as they mercilessly tease and take advantage of him, acting out a less toxic form of the unlawful exploitation they themselves suffer under the marquise and her family. And “Happy as Lazzaro,” true to its sunny if awkwardly translated English title (the original Italian version is “Lazzaro Felice”), partakes of its hero’s warm disposition even as it refuses to share his ignorance. Lazzaro may be guileless and naive, but Rohrwacher knows precisely what she’s doing.
The workers seem almost frozen in time; their existence, with its backbreaking toil and belt-tightening scarcity, wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a 19th-century drama by Ermanno Olmi and other cinematic poets of rural Italian life. But then that aforementioned rupture takes place, not long after Lazzaro is befriended and cruelly used by the marquise’s rebellious son, Tancredi (pop star Luca Chikovani). Rohrwacher, the subtlest of prestidigitators, casually splits her movie in two, pulling off the sort of trick that leaves you wondering what just happened and what might happen next.
Time seems to rush ahead for some, even as it stands perfectly still for others. The tobacco fields of Inviolata give way to paved streets and modern buildings (the second half was shot in Milan and Turin). The past sins of a ruthless aristocratic class are inherited, but not expiated, by the present-day upholders of law and order. Wonderful actors like Alba Rohrwacher (the director’s sister), Tommaso Ragno and Sergi López appear, quickening the movie’s human pulse. And through it all Lazzaro keeps moving quietly forward, his wide eyes taking in a world that seems jarringly new yet also sadly, wearyingly familiar.
Rohrwacher’s movie, which won a screenplay prize at the recent Cannes Film Festival, feels recognizably of a piece with her 2015 portrait of communal life, “The Wonders,” set among a family of Tuscan beekeepers. But as a parable of transfiguration, “Happy as Lazzaro” also harks back to the director’s little-seen 2011 debut feature, “Corpo Celeste,” a tale of a teenage girl grappling with the mysteries of her Catholic faith. In that movie and especially this one, Rohrwacher proves instinctively skeptical of the religious, legal and financial institutions that hold sway in Italy and the world at large, even as she clearly cherishes the kindness and humanity that can flourish unexpectedly in their wake.
Lazzaro — and the biblical resonance of that name is hardly accidental — is the most extreme manifestation of that humanity, and a character who, in less assured hands, might have been dull at best and insufferable at worst. As someone allergic to most holy-fool narratives, I was worried at first that “Happy as Lazzaro” might devolve into a sanctimonious pastoral remake of “Forrest Gump.”
Instead, the film simply becomes curiouser and curiouser. Tardiolo’s silent radiance and his director’s offhand audacity produce their own bewildering cinematic alchemy; imagine if Pier Paolo Pasolini had remade “Flight of the Navigator” and you’ll have some idea of the effect. The final scenes are full of casual, precious miracles — a box of pastries selflessly given, strains of organ music emanating from a church — and they speak to a human impulse that this movie both cherishes and embodies: the desire to repay a cruelly indifferent world with something unfashionably, unmistakably good.
‘Happy as Lazzaro’
Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements and brief violence
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: Opens Nov. 30 at Landmark Regent, West L.A.; also streaming on Netflix