By Alan Scherstuhl
Alice Rohrwacher's exquisite time-crossed fable Happy as Lazzaro sets a pastoral vision of Italy's past clashing with the reality of the present. This time, we meet the sharecropping peasants of the remote village of Inviolata, living lives of seasonal toil, lives that look -- except for the occasional radio or lightbulb -- like they might have a century or ago. Hélène Louvart's 16 mm cinematography is beguilingly attentive to every texture and sunbeam of this out-of-time existence. Rohrwacher follows the low-key misadventures of angel-faced Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a lanky naif who rarely speaks, is prone to extended stupors and has the dreamy look of Elijah Wood's Frodo Baggins. He larks around with his layabout pal Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), the son of the local landowner, who eventually enlists Lazzaro into a scheme it's not clear that Lazzaro understands: to fake a kidnapping in order to get the ransom money. Then, just when you might be settling in with its neorealist crime plot, Rohrwacher upends everything, splitting the film in two.

You might want to skip this paragraph if you plan to watch the film. The location shifts to an Italian city. We're still following Lazzaro, who now is homeless. There he meets some of the villagers from the movie's first half -- they have aged, while he hasn't. Rohrwacher's work unites a passionate interest in social realism, in the hardships faced by people on the streets and in the fields, with a daring refusal to be held by the rules of narrative realism. Happy as Lazzaro offers no explanations for its disruptions of time and space, for its jolting inconsistencies, for its baldly symbolic surprises or even for its characters' continued hopefulness.

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