Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us. (Luke 16:26)
‘We exist inside a revolution.’ Things cannot go on like this – and God knows that they won’t. The Christian hope is that the world in which we live, marred as it is by sin and injustice, has already been sealed for redemption by Christ; ‘the crumbling of world orders’ is already being brought about1 I can’t be alone in imagining myself as, if not an agent, at least a privileged spectator of that crumbling. I desire to position myself above the chasm, watching the rich get the woe they deserve. But Willie Jennings, whose language I’m following here, reminds me of the risks of this: not, quite, that my instincts for what counts as liberative will be proven wrong, but that all the apparent work of liberation – the protesting, the critique, the truth to power – must itself be overturned when the fullness of God’s communion is revealed. Jennings describes institutions that don’t offer this corrective as ‘anxiety academies’, where the only standard for measuring both the individual’s growing holiness and that of the institution is the extent to which each is embodying a change to the status quo.2 My own compulsions to rage and argument, in the face of failures to achieve that embodiment, are a key part of my own history of living with medicalized anxiety. How do I accept all this without falling into quietism, or cheap reconciliation?
A work that has helped me sit with this is Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature film, Happy as Lazzaro. I’ve barely stopped thinking about it in the two years since seeing it, and I’m sorry to spoil it so much by discussing it here. I’d prefer that you stop reading at this point and go watch it (on Netflix in the US, Amazon Prime in the UK). But I proceed because “spoiling the plot”, in various senses of that phrase, is part of what Happy as Lazzaro is all about: I feel I have no choice but to damage something that should be pristine and innocent, in order to extract something from it that, I am convinced, will improve it for you.
The film opens as a straight pastiche of earlier neorealist depictions of indentured peasant life, most notably Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (though the presence of minimal electric light here suggests this is set at least a few decades after Olmi’s 1898). We focus in on Lazzaro, a dreamy orphan who is characterised by total unfussy obedience, both to his fellow tobacco sharecroppers on the “Inviolata” estate, and to the staff of their landlady, the Marchesa de la Luna. Adriano Tardiolo’s beautiful, restrained performance gives no sense that this obedience requires any internal dilemma or refusal of will on his part. When the other laborers indulge in small ineffectual acts of resistance, like whistling faintly like the wind while their bosses don’t notice, he doesn’t get involved.
Part of me likes the idea that there’s something radical about this counter-Bartlebian obedience: that Lazzaro is exposing something ridiculous about the whole system of debt and exploitation by being a more perfect fulfilment of capital’s demands on the laboring body than capital itself normally expects or accommodates. He’s a worker for whom capital needn’t have bothered throwing all its energies at quelling resistance (energies aided, as shown in the film, by Victorian know-thy-place Christianity). He imagines something that capital itself cannot: a situation in which alienation simply has no place, where one can just be happy at work. Lazzaro feels like an analogy, embarrassingly, of how I wanted to be as a teenager at my Roman Catholic secondary school: precociously well-behaved, unswervingly pious, taking the rules more seriously even than those who were enforcing them. Of course, in having to want it for myself, I was already falling short. I was skating close to the reactionary canard that the most edgy and subversive thing is actually to conform, dude; certainly I made a point of failing to understand why my peers were wearing their ties too loose and forming rock bands, of noting that this was itself its own act of conformity. And yet the horizon of my fantasies was still framed in terms of wanting to walk out of school, launch a strike, and smash shit up – if only rule-following could somehow be the vehicle for it.
So, it’s a relief, from my point of view, when Lazzaro finds a match of a sort in Tancredi, the spoiled son of the Marchesa who, unwillingly vacationing on the estate, insinuates himself as the focus of Lazzaro’s obedience. A posturing bleached blond with a New Romantic dress sense, Tancredi has the rebellious spirit that Lazzaro lacks. He dreams up a plan to steal the money of all the marquises in the world (or at least his mother’s), by using Lazzaro’s private mountainside hideaway as a base in which to fake his own kidnapping. He talks up his affectionate solidarity with Lazzaro, claiming that they might be half-brothers lost at birth, imagining the pair of them as fellow knights and arming Lazzaro with a catapult. It’s hard to fault his spirit, even if his flesh is, literally, weak: when he has to prick himself to sign a ransom note with his own blood, he flinches and gets Lazzaro to bleed in his place. I want to believe, as someone who nurses radical commitments from a position of substantial privilege, that this is merely a failure of effort on Tancredi’s part: that I might be capable of being less exploitative, more self-sacrificial, and more sincere in my commitments to fraternal communism. I want this to work out for them (and, for all the talk of brotherhood, the relationship is equally a queer-coded one). And there’s a historical pedigree, one that’s been long rehearsed within Italian cinema, which we’re invited to see these characters as inhabiting. Rohrwacher grew up in rural Umbria, and much of Happy as Lazzaro was filmed in the surrounding mountainous countryside. It’s tempting to see Tancredi and Lazzaro as before-and-after shots of Francis of Assisi: the nobleman’s son who threw off his father’s garments in order to live freely in joyous poverty. (Angelo Tancredi, a former knight, is listed among Saint Francis’s earliest companions.) I continue to find a weirdly deep consolation in these scenes, and in tracing the Franciscan connections: having identified with aspects of both characters, I’m now invited to see how they might be reconciled, within a particular tradition of common life. Within such a tradition, freed from the need to exploit and extract, Lazzaro might still be all our futures.
But maybe the chasm remains fixed. The fact that the two characters are a conspicuous refraction of Franciscanism’s founding moment, rather than a clear imitation of it, might suggest that something is out of joint. During the manhunt for Tancredi, the police are summoned, against the wishes of the Marchesa and her staff – and it’s revealed that the people of Inviolata have been deliberately sealed off from the outside world, kept decades behind the early-1990s society of their bosses. It’s a twist that I should have seen coming, both in the narrow sense that there were clues which bound the story to particular historical moments (like the specific Eurodance track playing from Tancredi’s Walkman), and in the broader sense that I should know that this is just how the capitalist production system works: by keeping historical development uneven and leaving parts of the world in a state of ‘primitive accumulation’.3 Rohrwacher’s opening pastiche of her neo-realist forebears is suddenly revealed as a bait-and-switch. Having imitated their aesthetic but against the grain of their realist purpose, in order to foster enough of a sense of woozy bucolic timelessness for me to read the film as a kind of utopian allegory, that realist purpose now returns with a vengeance. With the expansion of the film’s world, and a renewed invitation to situate it within time, the possibility of reconciled life suddenly gets tested for its viability as a response to the ravages of historical circumstance – just as Franciscanism rapidly found itself tested as the order expanded, and its commitment to the most radical forms of poverty became unsustainable.
The odds do not look good. In another twist, which made the cinema audience I saw it with gasp as one, Rohrwacher appears to herald this failure of reconciliation by killing off her title character. Already suffering from a mysterious fever, Lazzaro tumbles into a ravine as the police helicopters arrive, and Inviolata is evacuated without him. Silent shots of the landscape follow. Then, as a wolf discovers Lazzaro’s corpse, a strange, attenuated version of a Franciscan legend is narrated in voiceover. A (here unnamed) saint ventures out to find a wolf that has been terrorising a village; like Francis, this saint discovers that the wolf is old and vulnerable rather than dangerous but, instead of bringing this knowledge back and reconciling man and beast, he collapses. The wolf nevertheless spares him, because he recognises that the saint is good. It’s a compromised story for a compromised version of Franciscan utopianism, one which suggests that the film’s overall attitude to religion is skeptical at best. All, it appears, that humility, joy, and obedience can offer are their own reproduction: fitful proposals of alternatives, tolerated but not taken up, as the wrecking ball of capitalist history smashes on.
But they do, nevertheless, keep being reproduced. The second half of the film begins with Lazzaro suddenly activating the power of his other Biblical namesake. The wolf’s presence revives him, apparently unharmed – and it becomes apparent that decades have passed without his aging. He makes his gentle way into a contemporary cityscape where he reunites, by chance, with the survivors from Inviolata, who are now caught up in a different regime of exploitation, living as vagrants and con artists by a railway siding. Once again, Lazzaro seems entirely free from regimes of getting and spending: he is able to glean miraculous quantities of vegetables from the dirt for his fellow vagrants. He seeks out and finds a middle-aged Tancredi who is, once again, eager to make Lazzaro a figurehead for some kind of transformative action: Tancredi’s in trouble with the bank, apparently for wanting to recklessly sell off his mother’s lands. He goes to eat with his former tenants on their wasteland, and offers to return the hospitality the next day. And it’s here, tragically, that hopes of reconciliation are dashed once again. When the vagrants arrive at Tancredi’s apartment, he has apparently forgotten the appointment, turning them away without coming to the door; this doesn’t stop his wife, answering for him and claiming that they too had fallen on hard times, relieving his guests of the pastries they’d bought as gifts. Exploitation looks like it could continue forever – but there’s a sense, this time, of a threshold being crossed. That night, Lazzaro sheds a single tear, essentially the first moment in the film that he’s expressed an emotion beyond benign acceptance. It feels cathartic to see him finally emerge at last as a subject with desires of his own, aware of his betrayals, and responsive to the way that others exploit him. But seeing him liberated like this equally feels like a fresh violation – as if that which kept him so redolent of an alternative way of living has now been compromised. And the lost innocence proves fatal. The next day, Lazzaro returns to the bank, guilelessly asking for Tancredi’s fortunes to be returned. Tancredi’s catapult, still in his pocket, is mistaken for a gun and he is beaten to death, this time for good.
To go back to Jennings’s terms, then, is there any hope for actual overturning of earthly powers, if the narrative denies that our mere reproduction of Christian values can ever have radical productive effects? In both halves of the film – first while alone together in the hills, and then again in the urban wasteland – the two men let out a wolf-howl. In each case, they get a howl in reply, from an unseen source. In the second half, at least, it’s a reply that is ambiguously human or animal, the possibility of an uprising which echoes across multiple voices, maybe across the film’s own gap of time. Counterbalancing the shots of the spectral wolf at its center, that howl hovers around the edges of what the film can represent, neither developed nor fulfilled within its narrative.
I’m a bit embarrassed by the extent to which writing about Happy as Lazzaro has meant spelling out its plot: going through the motions of what happens, how I interpret it or see myself in it, and what its implications might be for how I live. It’s obviously more than that, but I haven’t found an obvious way to write about that excess without just pushing through. The process of “spoiling the plot” can start to look like an act of exploitation: I extract the valuable parts of the film, and leave other parts aside, in confidence that I can accumulate and pass on a richer sense of its worth. I could react to that comparison by regretting and denouncing the whole sorry business of interpretation, suggesting that you’d be better off “experiencing it for yourself” unalienated. I could, in a way more self-servingly, make a case that, by conspicuously failing to make an interpretation which adds value to the film itself, I’ve exposed what’s genuinely valuable about it: the aspects that I’ve rejected will stand revealed, at the last, as those of greatest worth. But both of these reactions go too far. Acts of interpretation don’t alter artworks in the way that agricultural regimes alter the human and natural resources which they encounter. Artworks retain a life of their own, such that interpreting them might be more like encountering a wolf than sharecropping. These interpretive encounters are real events, which might have real and unsettling consequences for myself and for others’ capacity to encounter the work, but these consequences are carefully circumscribed. Not everything hangs on my interpretation, even as I still feel compelled to interpret. It ceases to be a source of anxiety.
In the final pages of his philosophy of film, The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell says something like this when he praises cinema as the art form which can win its viewers over to a vision of ‘the world of [their] immortality’.4 Insofar as a director does not arrange a series of images which I (or they) can parse fully, to which I can give total coherence through interpretation, I learn to reconcile myself to the fact that I do not complete the world, and the world will go on without me. Happy as Lazzaro is the first film that I’ve seen to give Cavell’s aesthetics a political correlate. It teases me with various models for what I feel my revolutionary subjectivity should look like: the boy who wants to will himself into a state of salvation; the boy who is already so perfectly attuned to what is good that his subjectivity is abolished and there is nothing for his will to bring about; a kind of union between them, in which the renunciation of power can both be performed and itself renounced. None of them add up to a concrete model for how I should act: I realise that the revolutionary transformation of the world can never “add up” from my finite perspective, on the basis of my finite interactions with it. There are certainly valuable steps that I could take in the wake of this realization: I can feel compelled to expand my political imagination beyond what can be embodied by young white men; I can take the wolf-howl as a cue to cultivate a broader ecological sensibility. But these responses continue to use the film as data for interpretations, and for interpretations which still centre my own limitations. There is nothing wrong with the fact that I’ll continually need to go back to cinema’s schoolroom, and be taught again that the world does not depend on me, because it’s a lesson that I, as me, can never absorb.
As one liberation theologian puts it, my sense of the justice that needs to be done will always be ringfenced by the ‘penal view of history’. There’s nothing wrong with such a view: it’s native to me, and it’s the one that God deigned to intervene in, through Israel and as Christ. But that intervention from beyond should be a reminder that this justice is just one region, within a broader terrain determined by love. So long as I can trust that that terrain does still contain all I want from justice, I can have the confidence to ‘leap the fence’ into it.5 I keep needing those reminders, in order to secure that trust – just as I need to keep being confronted by those aspects of films that do not cohere into interpretations. Just as Franciscan communities have only survived by turning from their efforts at repeating a shared rule of life and modelling radical poverty, as if those efforts could overcome historical forces by themselves, to ground those efforts in praying together that their hearts may simply be absorbed into the heavenly life of their Master, and into his renewal of the world.6 Anything less, and the leapable fence returns to being an unbreachable chasm. If nothing else, this is the comfort that I find myself returning to in the final shots of Happy as Lazzaro, as the wolf reappears, running out of the bank and out of the city, weaving among the oncoming traffic.
- Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Eerdmans, 2020), p.124.
- Ibid., 129.
- Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (Routledge Kegan Paul, 1951), pp.364-65. There is, of course, a reason why this dimension is easy to miss: all the speaking characters in Happy as Lazzaro are white Europeans. Indeed, it’s worth holding the film to account for using a historical process that has had its fullest working-out in the colonisation of the Global South as the basis for an allegorical fable.
- Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Harvard University Press, 1979), p.160.
- Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Orbis, 1987), pp.87-88.
- Cf. “The Absorbeat”, https://www.franciscans.org.uk/franciscan-praying/prayers-of-saint-francis <accessed 25/2/2021>