Italian World Cinema: Alice Rohrwacher’s ‘Lazzaro Felice’ Abroad

“I am truly amazed at how much it has been understood in such different countries […] I wonder why Italy has overlooked it, as if it there were no interest in a story that also speaks about the relationship with our own land, and the radical and bizarre transformations that it undergoes”. In a recent interview with Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, Alice Rohrwacher expresses regret that her latest film Lazzaro felice/Happy as Lazzaro (2018) has been more successful outside of Italy than at home.

The international reception of the movie has indeed been very positive. The movie premiered in May 2018 at the Cannes Film Festival, where it took home the award for Best Screenplay – a context that was not unknown to Rohrwacher, who also presented her previous film Le meraviglie/The Wonders (2014) in Cannes, winning the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury. The festival was useful as a prestigious platform for international attention: in the nine months since its official release, Lazzaro felice has been presented in more than 25 festivals all over the world – from Rotterdam to Hong Kong, from Melbourne to Jerusalem.

The US seemed particularly welcoming towards the film: not only was Lazzaro presented at festivals in New York, Austin and Chicago, where it took home the award for Best Feature, but it was also selected as one of the best foreign films of the year by the National Board of Review, the Film Independent Spirit Awards and the MoMA Film Department. Furthermore, the interest in the movie was such that Netflix decided to add it to its US catalogue and to release it on November 30, 2018.

At the same time, however, Lazzaro’s luck in Italy was much more contained: though not entirely ignored, as Rohrwacher complains, it was certainly underrated. Thanks to its success in Cannes, the film found great resonance both in the specialized press and in newspapers – and Rohrwacher was unanimously celebrated for this recognition. However, when released the film was met with mixed reviews by the critics: some praised the complexity and the coherence of Rohrwacher’s direction, as well as the vivid originality of the plot. But many others referred to the movie as “confusing and unresolved”, “absurd and repetitive”, “irritating at times” and even “utterly dull”.

As for national awards, it was widely overlooked. Though it recently received ten nominations at the David di Donatello Awards the film ultimately went home empty handed, and it was mostly snubbed by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, gaining only three nods – none of which for Rohrwacher herself. Lazzaro felice was not even selected by Italy as its Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Award nominations, despite the official endorsement of Martin Scorsese – who decided to join Lazzaro as an Executive Producer in order to support it and its campaign through the awards season.

This general feeling seems to find confirmation in the box-office data. After its premiere in Cannes, Lazzaro felice was immediately released in Italy on May 31, to exploit the impact of the Festival. It played in 109 screens, making a gross of €135,152 from 21,390 admissions, peaking at seventh place in the box-office chart. After only one month of theatrical release, however, the screens were cut to 46 and the movie lost some positions in the ranking – it then faded away from the top 50 grossing movies of the Italian box-office. As for the end of February 2019, Lazzaro felice grossed something between the €453,921 certified by Cinetel and the $502.508 reported by Box Office Mojo, less than half of the grossing of Rohrwacher’s previous Le meraviglie.

To be fair, it is not particularly surprising that Rohrwacher’s film was not a box-office smash: her work, in general, belongs to the tradition of a certain art cinema – “cinema d’autore” – that rarely fits the tastes of a large, mainstream audience. It is unexpected, however, that ultimately the film did not perform best at home in Italian market – a rather unusual dynamic for an Italian production. In fact, although the data is partial and still evolving, in March 2019, the French box-office has exceeded the domestic one by approximately 16%, with a total gross of $604,704.

On closer analysis, however, this data confirms a certain dynamic related to the commercial reception of Rohrwacher’s work. Considering the gross takings of all three of her films, it is clear that the French market share has become increasingly relevant. The percentage of Italian admissions reached by her debut feature Corpo celeste/Heavenly Body (2011) was around 74% against 23% of French ones. The situation changed with the release of Le meraviglie, when French and Italian takings were much closer matched: the movie grossed $1,274,922 domestically and $1,127,672 in France. The results achieved so far by Lazzaro felice prove this ongoing dynamic, marking the growing relevance of the French market over the Italian one.

Nevertheless, Rohrwacher’s films are entirely perceived as Italian. And indeed, in her brief but highly coherent production, it is easy to identify the “Italianness” of the subjects she depicts. Corpo celeste sketches the coming-of-age narrative of a shy and stubborn teenage girl who is forced to leave Switzerland in order to move with her family to a poor region of Southern Italy. When the film was released, critics praised Rohrwacher’s precision and credibility in depicting such a specific context – the southern contemporary middle-class – and its intricate system of rituals and values, as Emiliano Morreale stated in his review on Cineforum. Moreover, Corpo celeste seems relevant to the Italian contemporary social context thanks to its representation of Berlusconi media and its relentless promotion of showgirl-style sexual provcation among teenagers, as pointed out by Megan Ratner in Film Quarterly.

“Italianness” is stressed even further in her two follow-up movies, which both deal with preeminent social and cultural changes in Italy. Le meraviglie focuses – again – on the coming-of-age of a young girl in mid-90s rural Italy. But at the same time Rohrwacher aims to portray a crucial moment in recent Italian history: the progressive and irreversible end of an entire traditional cultural system that is overpowered by what Pier Paolo Pasolini defined as a “development without progression”. This is represented here by the recurrence of the pop hit T’appartengo by Ambra Angiolini – a massive hit from 1994, sung by one of the most iconic starlets of Berlusconi’s network – and by the crew of the TV program which shows up to enlist the local farmers in a glitzy and kitschy celebration of the ancient customs of Etruria.

If Le meraviglie can be considered a poetic elegy of a gradually eroded way of life and a rapidly disappearing world, Lazzaro felice coherently continues Rohrwacher’s poetic and takes her reflection one step further. Telling the story of the young peasant Lazzaro, who goes around the world with the innocence of a new Candide, Rohrwacher polemically draws a parallel between an exploitation system that is typical of sharecropping, and modern capitalist society. In her vision, due to decades of abuse and social inequity, the Italian peasants of the past have been replaced by a new class of “urban” slaves, who respond to similar dynamics of exploitation and oppression. This political approach, combined with her artistic sensitivity, led critics to find parallels between Lazzaro and classics of Italian cinema such as Ermanno Olmi’s L’albero degli zoccoli/The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) and Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema/The Earth Trembles (1948), or even the work of Ettore Scola, Sergio Citti and the Taviani brothers.

As appears evident, then, Rohrwacher’s films are imbued with references to Italian history, Italian cinema and a recognizable sense of “Italianness”. Nevertheless, referring to the general response to Lazzaro felice, Rohrwacher herself pointed out: “it is curious that a film perceived in the world as so ‘Italian’, has had so little resonance here”. Italian audiences, in fact, appear little captivated by this kind of “thought-provoking” narrative about recent Italian history.

This is possibly due to the fact – at least in part – that Rohrwacher’s style seems to have a sort of “international quality” rather than be specifically Italian: thanks to her personal authorial approach, her movies avoid some of the most widespread stereotypes and practices of contemporary Italian cinema. Although her movies engage with the inheritance of a certain tradition of Italian cinema, which goes from Ethnographic documentary to the aforementioned masters, Rohrwacher innovates this tradition with a very personal mixture of harsh (neo)realism and dreamlike suspension. As A. O. Scott writes in The New York Times: “She draws from the past (tapping into literature and folklore as well as film) to interrogate present conditions and future possibilities. This movie feels bracingly new and also like something that has been here forever. It has the urgency of a news bulletin and the authority of a classic”.

In the balance between the new and the classical, between tradition and innovation, Lazzaro felice belongs to a new type of Italian cinema. It tells stories related to the daily local reality that nevertheless reach a universal resonance thanks to a stylistic process of abstraction and symbolic stylization. Thus, with Lazzaro felice Rohrwacher has realized a fully Italian movie, which nevertheless can find its vocation only beyond national borders, as exemplified by the grossing of the French box-office. This is why Forbes’s Jeryl Brunner describes the movie as “a contemporary fairy tale of a film [that] offers insight into a Nation”. It is why Variety’s Guy Lodge recognizes in Rohrwacher a “a truly distinctive European major” – significantly European, not just specifically Italian. And, above all, this is why a film like Lazzaro felice can overcome the boundaries of the domestic market and appeal to an international audience.

In this sense, Rohrwacher shows the way of a new kind of “Italian World Cinema”, referring to a category introduced by Luca Barra and Paolo Noto: a cinema that is capable of narrating subjects and issues that, despite being extraordinarily local, can have a universal reach – and therefore reach a universal audience.