'Happy as Lazzaro': Alice Rohrwacher on the Importance of Being Open
"I've said that the cinema was not part of the memory of my childhood, but when I grew, I started to eat cinema and the food included their work, which I admired greatly."
After receiving critical acclaim and the Cannes Grand Prix for The Wonders, Alice Rohrwacher returns with her third feature, and Cannes Best Screenplay winner, Happy as Lazzaro. The time-bending drama, starring newcomers Adriano Tardiolo and Luca Chicovani as well as sister Alba Rohrwacher, premieres this Friday (November 30th) on Netflix.
A wrenchingly humanist film enveloped in a distinctly warm neo-surrealism, Happy as Lazzaro follows a young peasant’s journey through the ills and progressions of Italy’s recent past. Sweeping through the country’s abandoned beauty and developing decay, the non-aging Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) moves through the decades without losing his saint-like smile nor adding nary a wrinkle (think Forrest Gump meets Chance from Being There, Italian-style). Lazzaro encounters the good and the bad, the saints and the wolves, the common person and the powers that exploit. History repeats itself, albeit taking new forms (marquises become bankers, etc.), and Lazzaro moves forward, gaining neither guile nor knowledge. Ending on a pressingly jarring note, Rohrwacher leaves the moral of his story up to the audience.
No Film School spoke with Rohrwacher about her relationship with film, her filmmaker residency at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, having Martin Scorsese and Sofia Coppola champion her work, and exactly who or what is Lazzaro.
No Film School: Your film [Happy as Lazzaro] reflects a bleak and pessimistic story of Italy over the past 50 years or so, but through the eyes of a rather optimistic borderline saintly figure. This may be too broad of a question, but who is Lazzaro?
Alice Rohrwacher: We always say, "Il pessimista di ragione, un ottimista per volonta." Or "Pessimist by reason, an optimist by will." This is what I feel. It's "un modo di essere," a way of being in the world. It's something we can't identify with, but we look at. For me, it was important not to make a movie in which you identify with the protagonist, but to look at someone like you see paint or you see something that is happening in front of you. To see if you can recognize something in this that is happening that we are not anymore, but maybe we were as humanity and as people when we were very, very little, like two weeks old and very open.
And Lazzaro, for me, is the memory of all of us that we share with the possibility to be really open to what is happening and not knowing whether what is happening is good or bad. It is something that can tell you that being good doesn't always mean doing good things. Because if you are really good, as he is, he can't make a separation between good and bad. It's just accepting everything. If someone asks him, "Can you please put that this bomb inside this house?," he would do it. So it's not even connected. Not good things to good person. So it's very different from what our religion taught us: if you're a good person, you would do good things. Instead it's two different things.
He's a farmer and his story tells the story of our nation. His work was the type that people escaped from. Normally, we say that this fuga, this escape, was because they wanted a better life. We give them culpability because they wanted a washing machine. This did nothing to make their lives better. Nothing. So they were kept not in a cage of metal you can see, but in an invisible cage where their lives did not get better and they did not look out for others. It's the story of us all and it's the story of a peasant.
"I just wanted to tell a story of a good person."
NFS: In your film, there's a dichotomy which emerges through the symbolism and images of literal and figurative wolves and saints. Lazzaro is at the center of this, but also has the world happening around him. Would it be correct to say that he is a cipher in both the person-to-person story, but also that of the overall worldview of the film?
Rohrwacher: I never thought of it like this. I just wanted to tell a story of a good person. There is a story from a book by Dino Buzzati, Il colombre. It's the story of a boy who wanted to be a mariner. When he enters the boat, he sees a big fish in the sea. He says, "What is this big fish looking at me?" It was Il colombre, a very dangerous animal that is only seen by people that he eats. You can see him if you want to, but he'll kill you. The child survives and becomes a sailor. For all of his life, he sails around every sea and always sees this fish going around and around and around him. He is the only one that sees this big fish and it's like escaping the fate of this fish all of his life. When he is very old, the sailor decides to give himself to this big fish. He finally goes to the sea and the big fish opens his mouth. Una grande perla, there's a big pearl. The big fish says, "I have been trying to reach you for all of this time to give you this fucking pearl!"
It's a story that I always love. It's this idea of something that everyone fears, but is in fact, it's coming to save you and make you rich in a symbolic way. For me, the warmth was also to tell the story of something that all of the people fear, but it's coming somehow to save Lazzaro. Of course, there's an imaginary wolf. It's real, it's not real. It's a sound, but somehow it's also the soul of Lazzaro that stays within time.
"When we were choosing how to shoot the movie, we looked at painters."
NFS: In previous interviews, you've mentioned that you follow the images. Were there any other images or films in particular that inspired you while you were developing this film?
Rohrwacher: There are a lot of images... When we were choosing how to shoot the movie, we looked at painters. For example, to show the protagonist of the story, I followed the artistic tradition of fresco, like Giotto and Piero de Francesca. Without any shadow and without any psychology somehow, but the subject is in front of you and you have to sospendi lo sguardo, to hold the gaze. And so, it's not about a complex person, but a very simple state of youth. I think one very important image [in the film] is when the family crosses the river, Lazzaro is not there in fact, but the image is about the contemporary world and there are people there from Africa and the Arabic world. For me, it was important to put this image in the movie. When I see all these people crossing the sea, of course, I can't stop thinking about also how the story repeats, but Italy has a very little memory. I also decided to make this movie because of this image of these people that have to cross this river and go from one world to another world.
NFS: You shot Happy as Lazzaro in 16mm and worked again with cinematographer Hélène Louvart. Could speak on that choice in filmmaking and on that relationship?
Rohrwacher: We are working in the field and we are always working as a team. There is no reason to abandon beautiful technology like film that worked very well and that gave us a lot of joy. It's also to work in a relationship because you work with life-like material. That is as part of the movie as actors far, as lights, as costumes. So I don't know why everyone has this place of identity, but not for the material. It's something you can seduce, but not control. And I like this relation, this seduction. It's basic, sometimes sad because it's not working. Sometimes you shoot and nothing is happening.
NFS: In a NYFF Live talk two years ago, you said that it was like dancing with a partner you can't control.
Rohrwacher: Yes, it's like a dance. So I want to continue to do it. When I started to make this work, it was just 2011 and it was not much to shoot in film. But now it's like *gasp*. It has just been seven years... And about Helene, [working with her] is very important because she is a wonderful person and also, she's curious, too. And then we always just have fun to discover by using images what we want. We always took time to look for a little step in something that we don't know. Not jump, but always go step by step in a territory we don't know exactly. But we know what we did, so we know who we are. It's very beautiful to continue this relationship.
"You have to ask the people who prepared this ship if it's a strong ship and can bring people to the other side. I think we have to work on it."
NFS: You've mentioned previously that on the set of your first film [2011’s Corpo Celeste], a male technician came up to you at the end of the shoot and said something along the lines of, "Oh, that went really well, especially for a woman." Has that sort of dynamic changed or improved since then? As you've come into your own as a director, have you found a difference in the crew?
Rohrwacher: I never complained. That was just fine... I think no, it's not changing so fast. I don't know. I think it's a long, long process to go through. It is not yet done, in Italy as well, but let's do it. Sometimes I think that we talk a lot and then we talk with the directors, with people that survive along the process. But I think that this is a sort of question that we have to put before those who make their selection of schools, people who give money to the projects, to the producer of particular projects, to the schools and who they accept. So it's a question that you don't have to ask to those who survive, but to the ship that collapses. "Why do you survive?" "Eh, I don't know." You have to ask the people who prepared this ship if it's a strong ship and can bring people to the other side. I think we have to work on it.
NFS: Speaking of what builds up that ship... Sofia Coppola is a big fan of your work and Martin Scorsese is the executive producer on Happy as Lazzaro. In terms of your relationship with cinema, which as you have mentioned in other interviews started later in life for you, how has it been having the likes of these filmmakers championing your work?
Rohrwacher: I've said that the cinema was not part of the memory of my childhood, but when I grew, I started to eat cinema and the food included their work, which I admired greatly. It was a very big emotion. I perceived even more how alive the curiosity of Scorsese and Sofia is, because sometimes we think that people that have so much experience they lose that curiosity, no? In fact, when you see that this is still burning, the fire, you feel so touched, so emotional. So I was really honored that Martin decided to enter the project.
NFS: How was developing the film in New York City as the 2016 Filmmaker in Residence at the Film Society of Lincoln Center? I've read that you'd go to Coney Island and watch the roller coaster, but not go on it...
Rohrwacher: It was very important to be here, because, of course, to be so far away from your home, I think you feel somehow closer to Lazzaro because your eyes are more open, more sensitive. Just as he looks without any other secondary thoughts. So it was just very open and what he sees. So to be here was very important and to be the character. Also, to take a distance from the story I knew about this marquis, about these people. Telling the story from here was in fact simpler somehow. It's like how from the moon, you can see the form of the earth. When you're on the earth, you're like, "No, it's flat." .
NFS: Two of the film's leads are making their screen debuts: Adriano Tardiolo as Lazzaro and Luca Chicovani as the younger Tancredi [a marquis, who Lazzaro befriends]. How did you find and cast these relatively inexperienced actors?
Rohrwacher: It was a very long casting, because it was very different. There are a lot of actors who aren't actors, like Luca Chicovani is a Youtube star... Every character had this spot, so that it's not that unique. Someone like Lazzaro, we never could have cast him, so we have to find him without casting. Every time is different and this is just I think that when you find the good person, you always know when it's the right person.