There is such an unplaceable quality to Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro that one is reluctant to probe it too deeply or give away too much, as if it were a dream you want to leave undisturbed. At once frankly naturalistic yet blissfully ethereal, it's one of the few films for which the term magical realism seems accurate. Watching the film, which has bypassed American theaters and taken the increasingly common detour directly to Netflix.com, you're less aware of a plot than of the film playing out at its own pace. I suspect that repeated viewings would only enhance its dreamlike nature and the way it engulfs the viewer in its own world.
The unfixed quality is deliberate, a sly play on the unchangeability of society even over a span of decades. There is a strange — and as it turns out, deliberate — air of timelessness at work (or at play) here, a sense that its title character, like Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, has come unstuck in time as he strolls innocently through life. The film itself is a kind of Pilgrim's Progress, although a closer comparison could be made to the Arthurian knight Percival, who wandered through the Wasteland and failed to recognize the Holy Grail when he encountered it. Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is very much a holy innocent, a selfless and unquestionably decent soul who is so wonderstruck by the world that the people around him mistakenly assume that he's simple-minded.
When the film begins, Lazzaro is one of many workers on Inviolita, a struggling tobacco farm somewhere in Northern Italy. History hasn't quite caught up to Inviolita; although the film seems to take place somewhere close to the present (the Marchesa's son Tancredi has a cell phone), Lazzaro and his fellow workers appear to be living in serfdom, unable to leave the estate and kept in a constant state of indebtedness due to the calculations of the fast-talking farm manager.
Amid the toil of everyday life, Lazzaro remains distantly in awe of everything that passes by. He strikes up a friendship with the dissolute Tancredi, who drags him into a dubious kidnapping plot. He wanders into a nearby city where he falls in with a group of indentured workers who are just as exploited as his country cousins. (The more things change... )
Rohrbacher's screenplay, an award winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is so subtle that the film almost seems unscripted — until it jolts you with one of its sharp observations on class differences or economic struggle. She casually recalls the work of other Italian filmmakers who have explored the same countryside — a hint of Pasolini here, a Felliniesque broadness there, a political observation by way of Bertolucci and the Tavianis — but retains her own unshakeable vision, grounding the film in realism even during its most fantastic moments. In Lazzaro, she (and Tardiolo, who is hypnotically brilliant) have created a great modern figure, a virtuous hero who remains unshakeable, retaining his faith in the world even as it betrays him in a devastating climax.