A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Happy as Lazzaro is a far-from-happy film about the exploitation by the privileged of those for whom society provides little protection. Farm workers isolated on a remote, rural Italian estate are unaware that sharecropping was outlawed years before, so they toil for no pay on a Marchesa's tobacco farm until the police arrest her and disperse her impoverished and uneducated crew without assistance or housing. A rich teen fakes his own kidnapping for money. A man cuts his finger so he can drop blood on a ransom note. A man is beaten. Blood is seen. Adults smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol and sprinkle conversation sparingly with language, including "s--t" and "ass," but kids are likely to be bored.
What's the story?
In HAPPY AS LAZZARO, a group of 50 or so sharecroppers are held as unwitting slaves by a tax-evading "tobacco queen," the Marchesa (Nicoletta Braschi), who illegally works them for no wages long after indentured service has been outlawed in Italy. From the start, it's clear that nothing good is going to happen to these unlucky people. The farmhands are isolated from the world, since floods surrounded the estate in the 1970s. The workers live squeezed into two small buildings with insufficient food and beds, in filth and deprivation. There's only one light bulb, and it's moved judiciously only when light is desperately needed. The children are dirty and uneducated. All they do is work for the Marchesa, who tells them they remain in her debt year after year. The wide-eyed simpleton Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is an ever helpful teen who has no idea who his parents are. The movie suggests that even the most downtrodden among us need to abuse someone lower, and Lazzaro, seeking no advantage and having no ambition, is the lowest. He remains kind, generous, even-tempered, without malice or guile, while others mock him. When the Marchesa's teenage son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) visits, he pretends to disdain his mother's abuse of the workers but selfishly enlists Lazzaro in his kidnapping scam to get his mother's money, all the while himself abusing Lazzaro's friendship and loyalty. Then Lazzaro literally falls off a cliff, and in a sense the plot does too, as the police discover the Marchesa's crime, cart away the workers, and abandon Lazzaro. When Lazzaro awakens, it's not clear how much time has passed. Eventually, he finds his fellow former slaves and also Tancredi in the nearby city, but they are all old while he remains an innocent-looking teen. Magical things happen, but magic doesn't intervene when the good and sweet Lazzaro meets a violent and senseless end.
Is it any good?
This Italian movie is an interesting mess. It's at least three movies packed into one and too long by a good 30 minutes, all of which will make it a challenging trudge for teens old enough to grasp its political, religious, and social messages. At times, it channels the innocent protagonist of Being There. At others, it suggests the neo-realism of 1950s Italian cinema. Or is it a fable? The director doesn't seem to know, as fantasy and reality clash with no integrating mechanism to make those categories mesh coherently. If Happy as Lazzaro is an allegory, what's the parallel? The Christ story? Given that Martin Scorsese, director of The Last Temptation of Christ, is a producer, that's a plausible guess.
But even the movie's own internal logic is skewed. When Lazzaro takes a fall that would kill any man, a child's voice begins a narration about an old man who leaves his village and isn't attacked by a hungry wolf because he is "good." But Lazzaro isn't old. And if he isn't Jesus carrying the good news, is he Lazarus rising from the dead? Beneath the voice-over we see Lazzaro rise as the hungry wolf leaves him alone because of his goodness. That's confusing enough, but is it the next day? Thirty years later? It doesn't make enough sense for us to care.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the unfairness of the way some people have a great deal and some people have nothing at all. What do you think about the Marchesa's argument that although she exploits her farm workers, they also exploit the weakest among themselves? Do you think she justifies her abuse or is she just making feeble excuses for her cruelty?
How do you interpret Happy as Lazzaro's take on the passage of time? How do you explain that Lazzaro remains young while others he knows seem 20 and 30 years older? Have decades passed, or is there another explanation?
Who is the intended audience of this movie? How can you tell?
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