Evocation of a Common Language: Alice Rohrwacher Interviewed by Daniella Shreir

The Italian filmmaker on community, verisimilitude, and her latest film, Happy as Lazzaro.

5 Lazzaro Felice Di Alice Rohrwacher  Nella Foto Adriano Tardiolo Still 1600X980

Still of Adriana Tardiolo in Happy as Lazzaro, directed by Alice Rohrwacher, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

The sense of claustrophobia, of a world too small, dominates all three of Alice Rohrwacher’s films. These works, each set in a rural Italy overflowing with children and animals, question the way communities, including the family, are organized. In Heavenly Body (2011), the youth section of a Catholic Church offers a young girl disco songs and dance routines as an alternative to her poor, single-parent family; in The Wonders (2014), a chance encounter with a television crew gives a young girl the desire for magic beyond the routine of the honey factory her sprawling family runs. In Happy as Lazzaro, however, an alternative is thrust upon a community that never knew one possible.

Lazzaro is based on the story of an aristocratic family who still forced unpaid peasants to produce tobacco for them, long after the end of sharecropping. Set in a village called Inviolata, the peasants in Lazzaro are a large family, so large that they don’t know how they are related, only that they all share the same grandma. Then there’s Lazzaro, a young man so innocent as to be exploited by his community of serfs. Obligingly, he does the jobs others refuse to do and serves as the butt of their jokes. More curiously, as the plot advances, those around him continue to age, but Lazzaro remains in seemingly perpetual youth.

—Daniella Shreir  

Foto Lazzaro Felice 4 Low

Still from Happy as Lazzaro, directed by Alice Rohrwacher, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

Daniella ShreirYou’ve said before that all your films started with a single image rather than a character or story. Was it the same for this film?

Alice Rohrwacher Yes, it was the image of the peasants of Inviolata crossing the shallow river, which cuts the film into two parts. It was the image of internal migrants, an image I see everyday around me, of people crossing the sea. I knew I wanted to tell the story of before and after a mass internal migration.

Then came the frontal image of Lazzaro—this head-on, close-up of him. I didn’t want an image that tried to study his psychology; I wanted one that was in line with the classic sense of the image, one that looks at something in front of us. It’s like we’re looking in the mirror.

DSEven though Lazzaro is the central character, we don’t see what he sees. We see him through the eyes of others. In the film’s opening shot he’s filmed from above, looking at something in the distance.

ARThis is very important. Something has happened in cinema where it seems that in every film we have to see with the eyes of the protagonist in order to sympathize with them. You get this most in the coming-of-age film. Instead, I wanted to convey the feeling of a world looking at someone. 

DSWhat’s funny about Lazzaro is that it’s an anti-coming-of-age story: Lazzaro is the only one who doesn’t age as the story’s twenty or so years pass.

ARI think another overused element in narrative is the idea that something has to change over the course of the film. When you’re writing a film, financiers ask you what changes the character goes through by the end of the film. In my mind change doesn’t happen like that. So I tell them, “No, my films are about the world changing around the character.” My protagonists are like the spindle of the gramophone—the bit that allows the record to move around it.

Through Lazzaro you can see that even if the world around him has become richer and more modern it’s still the same in essence. The shift from the isolated countryside to the town hasn’t made a difference. The people who were at the margins have stayed at the margins; the manipulators have continued to manipulate. The only thing that has changed is that kindness was useful before. It wasn’t celebrated, but it was useful. Now, in the modern times, it isn’t even useful anymore. It’s become suspect.

DSThere’s this brilliant scene where they mouth along to a newspaper article about “The Great Swindle” they were victim to. But they still address their former owners using honorifics, bring them gifts they can’t afford, and bow down to a now-sullied portrait of them. They can’t imagine life without a hierarchy.

ARThe problem is that people who really have nothing are barred from imagining a life in which they might have something. So these positions will always exist. But this is only one part of the movie’s story; there’s also the story of a community, of innocence, of what is sacred, what is miraculous.

DSCan you say more about this notion of community?

ARI’m almost thirty-seven, and when I was very small I saw a little bit of this world that the film captures, and I don’t think it was better. There’s no nostalgia in me or in the movie; that’s very important. As a woman I know that things are better than they were fifty years ago. But I think what I miss about before was the sense of community. No, community is too nostalgic and bucolic a word. I’d call it a common language. It’s the way the peasants breathe together in the movie. What I miss now is that I can’t rely on having a common language with anyone. And it’s not to say we should go back, but I want us to remember it. I think a director is like someone cleaning up after a concert, looking at all the objects people have left behind in their seats and deciding whether they’ve been accidentally left behind or thrown away intentionally. And there are things I think should be thrown away, that I should distance myself from—and others that I want to recover.

Lazzaro Felice Di Alice Rohrwacher  Nella Foto Luca Chikovani E Adriano  1

Still of Adriana Tardiolo and Luca Chikovani in Happy as Lazzaro, directed by Alice Rohrwacher, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

DSI love that image of useful and useless debris. But would it be a cliché to describe your film crew as something like a community or a family? A lot of people ask you about working with your sister, Alba, but you have also used many of the same actors across your films, as well as the same producer, Carlo Cresto-Dina, and cinematographer, Hélène Louvart.

ARYes, and this is a community I want to keep together. There are always some changes because of individual time constraints. This was the first time I worked with the incredible editor Nelly Quettier, for example, so it’s not a closed community. But it’s beautiful to share a process with a group of people because you’ve got a grounding, and each time everyone wants to push themselves more than the previous time. And it’s a grounding that allows us to communicate and help and question each other. It’s beautiful to imagine a long career working with the same people. 

DSI love Louvart’s work. Can you describe how you negotiate the image with her?

ARWe have a very special way of working. Our work is about looking for life from an interior rather than exterior position. Even when there are symbolic images, they never come from above—they come from the ground. The images are earthly, which allows them to grow.

The whole movie is sensual for me even if there’s no declaration of sexuality in any character. I think there is a pudico element that is a historical element. It’s not modesty, it’s not shame, it’s pudore—it’s between all these things. So we tried to make a sensual film using the sensuality of images without talking about sex or sensuality in a direct way because we weren’t interested in that. What we were interested in was making a film about an age and a type of society where these exchanges were secret.

DSHave you used the same technology each time?

ARYes, the Super 16 mm film is a big part of our work. It’s a technology that you can never completely control; it’s something that you have to seduce with light. There are a lot of things we do to seduce this incredible material. It’s like a relationship. You always ask this material, “Please, do what I want,” but it never does. And so I love working in a relationship, with materials and with people. It’s better than working alone. 

The other thing I love about film is that you’re obliged to make the film while shooting. In digital you can say, “I’ll fix this or that later.” I find this way of working dangerous. When Lazzaro falls down from the mountain, you get this long shot. We had to find a way to do this while shooting; it’s a brilliant exercise which allows for a particular type of thought.

DSI read that you made all the honey for The Wonders and that you planted all the tobacco leaves for Lazzaro, years in advance. 

(laughter)

ARThis isn’t for some abstract reason. When we’re preparing a movie everything seems so difficult, so if you have a solid ground you feel more free. If we cultivate the plants and nourish the animals for real, then we know that element is true. It means you really are free to do what you want. It’s like having a net. We need to know that the ground is solid, that things are true, because the storytelling itself is a fairy tale. To tell a fairy tale you have to have some reality.

DSSo it’s a matter of balance?

ARYes.

DSAnimals play a big part in all your films: cats, bees, chickens, wolves. You used real bees in The Wonders and a wolf in Lazzaro when many would have chosen a wolf-like dog or CGI. When there’s so much talk about the Anthropocene, is it a political decision not to replace animals with their fabricated alternatives?

ARIn the first part of Lazzaro there are these animals scattered around Inviolata. It was very important that we used free animals, ones that were used to the place. So we took them there when they were very little, and that’s where they grew up, in Inviolata. They were a part of the landscape because it was their landscape.

Of course when we were looking for a wolf it was difficult because we tried with a fake wolf in the beginning, a dog, but this dog does nothing, it’s just there. We wanted a true presence. If you work with a dog and ask it to be aggressive, then you’ll think it’s a wolf. But the wolf in the movie isn’t aggressive, it’s just present; it smells Lazzaro, and it walks around. So we found a one hundred-percent real wolf, and it was very beautiful and very difficult to shoot. Often when you film animals you strip back the set completely, shoot the scene, go home. We wanted to put the wolf in relation to humans, so when we did the pan shot of Lazzaro and the wolf in continuity, it was very hard because everyone was scared. But I think it’s great to work with a bit of fear because it makes people very concentrated. The whole crew was silent. It actually mimics the final scene of the film, the armed robbery. Everyone was silent and sensitive in the same way. 

Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is now streaming on Netflix.

Daniella Shreir is the editor of printed feminist film journal Another Gaze. She also works as a translator and graphic designer.

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