Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) interview: Director Alice Rohrwacher discusses the tragic ties between power and exploitation
Having truly come into her own as a director at Cannes, with her first film being screened at the Director’s Fortnight in 2011 and Happy as Lazzaro, her third feature, in competition for the Palm d’Or this year, Alice Rorhwacher has established herself as a talented auteur. The Italian filmmaker sat down with us at the Palais des Festival’s third-floor terrace to discuss the principle morals of her film, the process of conceiving characters and story, and the actual production itself.
The part of the story that’s explained in the newspaper clipping was a real event that happened in the 80s. Can you talk about what drew you to this story specifically?
Alice Rohrwacher: Yes. It’s true that the very first inspiration was an article, a very small article clip that I read while I was still in high school. It’s a small event in Italian history which we discuss but in a grander sense. It’s similar to any small event that you read about and forget the next day, about people who are in a privileged position and take advantage of that position to exploit other people. The Marchesa de Luna is actually a very common character, in that people often use their power to exploit other people. It’s a universal issue. So the starting point was to make a political story, but then Lazzaro arrived and the film changed, taking on this non-religious/religious dimension to it.
When you say that Lazzaro arrived, where did he arrive from?
He arrived in the sense that, considering the universality of the story, we felt the need to lighten it up a bit. We thought about a character who’s so innocent it’s almost ridiculous. He’s pure to the extent of being revolutionary and upsetting in his purity; he’s sheer goodness. He’s not the usual character who has an arc we normally see in films. He doesn’t change, he doesn’t become good, he’s good from the beginning to the end. Even in a world that’s changing he cannot change, that’s the way he is since the beginning of time and forever.
In political discourse and in this film, can we talk about class more?
The class war exists but in this case, it’s the rich who won, unfortunately. In this film we see the Marchesa exploiting the peasants and the farmers, but then the peasants and the farmers exploit Lazzaro. In the end, everyone exploits everyone else.
Lazzaro feels like a Renaissance portrait. How did you work with him?
It’s true; it’s as if he belonged to a different age. Adriano [Tardiolo] is a normal boy of today but with Lazzaro, he shares his total trust in people and his wish to speak the truth and nothing else. In the film, he’s not stupid in the sense of being simple-minded and he’s not a saint, but between the two there’s a very thin line. That’s how we found him.
Would you say that today, purity and goodness are associated with naivety and silliness?
It’s always been like that, not only today. The film doesn’t ask the viewers to put themselves in Lazzaro’s shoes or to take on his gaze. It’s about our ability to see people like Lazzaro. It’s not the way Lazzaro sees the world, it’s the way the world sees Lazzaro.
There’s a long history of depicting the lives of the poor in cinema. What are some films that inspired you?
It’s always difficult to talk about inspiration because I believe there’s a lot more involuntary inspiration than voluntary inspiration. I mean involuntary in a good sense because I think good cinema leaves a lasting subconscious effect on people. There are a lot of unconscious references and I can’t talk about inspiration without acknowledging that.
You allude to this element of time travel that sort of changes the movie. How did you approach this particular element?
If we cannot travel in time through films then we definitely cannot travel in time.
For your last film, you made the honey yourself.
I can’t make cigarettes!
Why did you choose tobacco this time?
I chose tobacco for many reasons. The legality or illegality of it is not very clear because in Italy it’s a monopoly and you can make a lot of money. It’s an appealing crop for the Marchesa to be growing for this reason. It was difficult to imagine she’d be making money or keeping power over people if she was producing a less lucrative crop like corn or something like this. It’s a luxury product. We had to plant the tobacco ourselves actually, so when you see it big in the movie you can imagine how hard we worked!
How long did you have to wait for it to be fully grown?
Many months. It got to be three meters high in the end.
I like that there are two instances of time travel in the film in the sense that at first, I thought we were in the 50s.
Yes, we’re in the 50s, then we’re in the 90s, then we’re in the now.
How did you work with the wolf?
Well, we worked in French because it’s a French wolf.
It’s a real wolf and that was very important. Originally we were looking for dogs that could look like wolves. But we realized that if the dog didn’t have an aggressive scene then it would have to be a wolf. You can only imagine that a dog is a wolf exclusively when it’s acting aggressively and in this movie that doesn’t happen. A dog just looked like a normal dog so we started looking for a real wolf. We found this extraordinary man in France, Pascal Treggi, who really lives with these wolves. The one we used in particular, Ted, was very calm and sweet. But of course you’re working with a wild animal so everyone has to be very quiet, there had to be a religious-like silence during the wolf scenes. And the set was protected by an electric fence but it ended up being very simple to work with him. It was great because normally the crew is very noisy, but when the wolf arrived there was silence. I want to make all my movies with wolves now!
One of the moments that stuck with me was when Teresa asks if they can leave the pastries with her. It really speaks to the current moment, when people who have traditionally been in power feel –
– they cry!
Yes! They feel like they’re getting pushed out by people demanding space which is rightfully theirs. Can you talk about how privilege plays into the film?
My thought wasn’t as articulated and complex as you’re guessing, but I’m glad you got that from it. To me, it was very simple. It’s a tradition in Italy on Sunday, especially if you’re invited to lunch or dinner, to bring cakes. It’s something that’s connected to childhood – I mean, we can all remember the cakes on Sundays. Of course, it’s what follows that counts: when Teresa says, “it’s the banks that robbed us,” no one believes her. They all laugh and leave. The only one who takes what she’s saying literally is Lazzaro and that’s why he goes to the bank, in the end, to ask for the money back. It says that pure, endless goodness prevents you from having the ability to distinguish between what is good and what is evil – and that’s him.
This goodness that everyone talks about, do you think it’s found more in the countryside? That the bucolic nature is more conducive to this trait than the city?
No. I don’t think it has anything to do with city versus countryside. I’m not making any kind of positive or negative judgement on either of them. The last people of the earth are the last people of the earth, no matter where they live. They’re all in the same situation. Goodness is like a wildflower; it can blossom in a field or in a city street.
You call your film “Lazzaro Felice”, not “Lazzaro Resurrecto.” What is your idea of happiness?
This is a secret. Lazzaro is, of course, a mythological name that is often referred to more as an entity than a real person. I wanted to give it a body and turn him into a human being; a human being that could either be happy or sad – and we decided that, hopefully, he was happy.
Photo: Stephane Cardinale-Corbis/ Getty Images
Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.
Watch a cliip from Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) here: