Saint and sensibility

A Christian fable or a Marxist allegory? A magical-realist myth or a political cry against neoliberalism (or feudalism, which produces the same catastrophe anyway)?

Photo courtesy of Happy as Lazzaro

Perhaps all of the above, perhaps Biblical references go well with everyday paganism -- especially in Italy. The serene ambiguity of Happy As Lazzaro, which will be shown as part of the Italian Film Festival in Bangkok, is its most arresting quality. The film, directed by Alice Rohrwacher, is certainly the highlight of the 10-film showcase that will take place this weekend at Cinema Oasis on Sukhumvit 43 (Saturday, 9pm). I admit to knowing very little about the rest of the programme -- some of it looks promising -- but if you have to see just one film in the batch, this is it.

Happy As Lazzaro is divided into two parts, a narrative shift that seems at once natural and surprising. It opens in what looks like a not-too-distant past, maybe the mid-20th century, maybe earlier, though it could well be the present (there's a mobile phone): we are with the peasants at a tobacco farm owned by a wealthy aristocrat. In that expansive estate, the workers live in near-squalid conditions, caked in mud and soil, exploited and oppressed by the baroness and her cocky, spoiled son. It looks like modern slavery, in fact, though again the film doesn't spell it out that clearly.

Lazzaro of the title (Adriano Tardiolo) is a peasant boy clad always in a white T-shirt, with cherubic face and childlike eyes, a gentle, optimistic, compliant soul who's ready to serve anyone, including those who regard him with pathetic disdain. You would be tempted to compare him to a saint, one who never thinks of himself but always of others, and yet Happy As Lazzaro never professes that kind of simplistic religious conviction. Throughout the film's first half, we follow Lazzaro and other farmers as they toil away in that agricultural milieu; Rohrwacher's stylistic hallmark is on full display here as she captures everyday reality with a wistful, naturalistic grace that feels lightweight even though it doesn't shy away from the oppression faced by the characters. As in her previous film, The Wonders, in which we follow a family of beekeepers in rural Italy, Rohrwacher shows that she is a generous visionary who prods the tropes of her cinematic forebears (Pasolini, Fellini, Rossellini?) into an even more humanist terrain.

Then all of a sudden, we're in the second part of the film. (I will tread carefully here so as not to be hanged for that most sinful crime of the Avengers century: spoiling the plot, even though there's really no plot to spoil in Happy As Lazzaro.) The film moves into what looks like the present day. The same group of peasants, led by Antonia (Alba Rohrwacher, the director's sister), is now a ragtag tribe of squatters living on the suburban edge of a modern Italian city, as marginalised as their former existence in the farm, and they make ends meet by petty thievery, scavenging and other small crimes. Lazzaro is at first not there with them, but soon he will be, in a sort of Biblical resurrection, still bright and happy as he's always been.

The most political of films sometimes comes across as the most apolitical. As Europe contends with populism and other scourges of economic demons, Happy As Lazzaro is a film about the working-class that, unlike Ken Loach's ultra-realistic movies about British wage-workers, uses the ability of cinema to explore multiple realities of life. The "timeless" quality of the film -- since we're not sure which year or decade the first and second halves of the film take place in -- is presented with a straight face, without any device (no text explanation, for instance) nor myth-making persuasion, as if to hint that what happened in the past is still happening now and may also happen again in the future. Happy As Lazzaro can be described as a parable, even a myth, but what makes it relevant to our contemporary world is that it's real.

PROGRAMME OF THE ITALIAN FILM FESTIVAL

Forever You

Thurs May 16, 8pm, Scala Theatre

Sat May 25, 9.30pm, Cinema Oasis

• The love story between Matteo and Francesca in a journey across 70s Italian culture, with the romantic songs of Lucio Battisti.

(All other films are shown at Cinema Oasis, Sukhumvit 43, with English subtitles)

Happy as Lazzaro

Sat May 18, 9pm

Sun May 26, 9pm

• Lazzaro, a good-hearted peasant, forms a bond with the son of his mistress in a quasi-surreal story about working-class life.

Romolus & Remus: The First King

Fri May 17, 8pm

Sat May 25, 7pm

• An interpretation of the mythical tale around the founding of Rome by twins Romulus and Remus.

The Strange Sound Of Happiness

Sat May 18, 7pm

Wed May 22, 9pm

Sun May 26, 5pm

• Diego Pascal Panarello's documentary begins with a personal experience which will ultimately lead the director from Sicily to Siberia, to the origins of a small musical instrument.

We'll Be Young And Beautiful

Sun May 19, 7pm

Thurs May 23, 9pm

Sat May 25, 5pm

• Isabella still sings Tic Tac, the song that made her famous in the early 90s, when she was only 17. Her young son Bruno is her guitarist. The two are inseparable, perform every night together, and share a ramshackle but happy life of unpaid bills and midnight strolls.

The Startup

Sat May 18, 5pm

Wed May 22, 7pm

Fri May 24, 5pm

• Matteo creates a social platform where people negotiate job offers. At the beginning, no one believes in his project, but Matteo never loses his faith.

Capri Revolution

Sun May 19, 9pm

Fri May 24, 9pm

• In 1914, with Italy about to enter World War I, a commune of young artists from northern Europe establishes itself on the rural island of Capri. Here Lucia, a local girl, meets Seybu, the charming leader of the commune, and Carlo, a young doctor.

Travelling With Adele

Fri May 17, 7pm

Thurs May 23, 5pm

Sun May 26, 7pm

• A famous theatrical actor with a bad nature discovers that he has a 30-year-old daughter suffering from a mental disorder that forces her to always wear a pink rabbit costume.

Wherever You Are

Wed May 22, 5pm

Fri May 24, 7pm

Sun May 26, 3pm

• Alessandro is a musician in a small town of Sardinia. After a life wasted on slot machines, he would never have imagined that love could find him. In a hospital he meets Francesca — big green eyes, melancholy and bright, spontaneous as a child and with two ship tickets in her pocket.

There Is A Light

Sun May 19, 5pm

Thurs May 23, 7pm

Sat May 25, 3pm

• Paolo is a sceptical 30-year-old who works as a sales clerk in a Turin department store. Mia is a backup singer in a band and lives her life haphazardly, which leads her to her being homeless.