Happy as Lazzaro

By Tim Winterstein

Watching a screen is more or less a passive activity, regardless of the film or show. And whether it’s on the “more” side or the “less” side, watching can fulfill various purposes. I’m a fan of escapism at certain times. When my brain has been engaged throughout the day and under various stressors, I prefer something that will simply entertain with as little mental energy expended as possible. At other times, I want something that will expand the way I think about things and make me put together the pieces—which, admittedly, are being distributed to me.

There are films to passively watch and there are films to make you think. And then there are films to be absorbed: experienced visually and mentally and even spiritually. Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) (Italian with subtitles, streaming on Netflix, executive produced by Martin Scorsese!) is one of the latter. I hesitate to say much about the film itself because I entered it without any expectations or knowledge, and that seems about right. I am rarely surprised by films. So much (as in most fields) has been done that it is probably impossible to do anything unique. And it’s difficult, at best, to present a new look, a different angle, or an unexplored facet of some idea.

The surprising thing about Lazzaro is that you don’t—I didn’t, at least—see the shocking moment coming. It begins as an examination of one kind of relationship and then becomes something altogether different, without losing its heart or its soul.

Without giving away too much (I hope), what struck me was how Lazzaro subtly unfolds the ambiguity of progress, whether economic, technological, or societal. We all sort of naturally assume the good of progress, but we forget that progress must, by definition, have a goal or end. If there is no purpose to which actions or events or ideas are directed, then it cannot be progress; it can only be change. And change may be progress or regress, depending on one’s definition of the goal. Anyone who talks about progress without defining the goal or end is talking nonsense. Lazzaro, among many other things, highlights the irony inherent in undefined “progress.”

The film asks other questions about definitions. What is happiness? Is Lazzaro happy, and what does the film want us to conclude about what it means to be “happy as Lazzaro”? What is worth doing and for what reason? What are people, and what are they for?

And there’s another interesting thought running through the first half of the film: what’s the connection between goodness and naivete? Lazzaro, unlike some portrayals of good people, does not appear to be limited in intelligence or other abilities. He may be slightly naive, but only in the sense that he always does what people want him to do.

So consider the fact that since we have no examples of perfect goodness other than Christ (as Christians believe), we have trouble imagining what a truly good person might do and say. And the only solution to that problem that we can come up with is to make the good individual slightly stupid. Lazzaro pushes the edges of that assumption.

Though the ending is not an especially happy one, I would highly recommend setting aside two hours and absorbing Happy as Lazzaro. If you’ve seen it, feel free to make note of particular scenes or ideas in the comments (but designate if you’ve included spoilers, so others know!). I’m interested in what others take from it. For me, it’s in the top 5 of 2018.