film analysis & video essays
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Film Analysis

Alice Rohrwacher's 'Lazzaro Felice' is a timeless allegory about empathy and exploitation

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In the opening minutes of Alice Rohrwacher’s new film Lazzaro Felice, it’s not immediately clear who our protagonist is. We are quickly introduced to a family of peasants woken in the middle of the night by a marriage proposal. As the families celebrate, we see Lazzaro in the background, a helping hand willingly and pleasantly consenting to any request that comes his way. Lazzaro’s introduction is as humble and innocuous as he is; but what begins with a modest introduction blossoms into something exceptional.

American audiences may not be familiar with Alice Rohrwacher, but if there’s any justice, Lazzaro Felice will put her on the map in a big way. It’s rare to encounter a film that feels like a classic the first time you watch it and yet…and yet, Lazzaro Felice does not feel of this time, of this world. It’s like lightning in a bottle, striking you down as you watch it play out with remarkable effortlessness. Steeped in the heat of the Italian countryside, the film combines Rohrwacher’s penchant for the rural realism with a newfound sense of magic and fantasy.

The moments of magic in the film – don’t worry, I won’t spoil them for you here – play out with such grace and confidence that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a work of fiction. Rohrwacher’s command over the film’s magical realist tone is a delight to behold and deeply rewarding if you give yourself over to it.

Lazzaro Felice continues the trend in Rohrwacher’s career of telling stories of characters reckoning with modernity. As a filmmaker, Rohrwacher displays a keen awareness of the divide between rural and metropolitan communities and portrays them with sensitivity. Much of the imagery in the film’s latter half is reminiscent of Antonioni’s work in L’Avventura and Red Desert. The beauty of her work is that she is able to bring these two worlds together, examining their intersection with empathy as her characters make their way through.

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As a character that finds himself at this intersection, Lazzaro is particularly compelling. He is shown to want or ask for nothing; he happily serves others in a way that is increasingly detrimental to his own well-being and yet he shows no regard for himself or his needs. This extreme selflessness lends itself to exploitation – the very foundation of the film’s underlying commentary.

Some will no doubt call this commentary a “critique of modern society,” but aside from being a rather elementary take, this point misses the larger emphasis the film places on relationship between empathy and exploitation. Lazzaro is exploited by his family as his family is exploited by the proprietor of the village. Yet in the face of this exploitation, Lazzaro answers with resounding empathy.

These message, somewhat didactic in nature, combined with the film’s use of magical realism adds up to a product that is poignantly allegorical – a tale of the power of compassion and impact of corrupted authority accompanied by a thoughtful look at how the rapid transition into modernity affects us all.  

Rohrwacher was awarded the best screenplay award at Cannes – a fitting recognition for a film that excels on the ingenious simplicity of its script. Without giving too much away, the movie is cleverly split into two even halves that complement one another beautifully. The first hour envelopes you in the warmth of this isolated community, sharing their joys and hardships through Lazzaro’s steady gaze while the second hour lifts the veil between rural and metropolitan worlds, between the past and present, between life and death.

No film at the festival transported me like this one. It’s a magical and moving tale of empathy that inhabits a world of its own creation. Rohrwacher has cemented herself as a must-watch talent that deserves to be seen.

Aaron Lockecannes