The Films of Alice Rohrwacher

A review of the director's work in Italian cinema

Elizabeth Leake
A man stands behind a large plant.
Still from Happy as Lazzaro.

The director Alice Rohrwacher, arguably one of the most interesting Italian filmmakers of the day, is having her moment. The Wonders (Le meraviglie) won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014, and Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice) won Best Screenplay there in 2018. The Wonders tells the story of a family of beekeepers in rural Italy. Wolfgang (played menacingly by the German actor Sam Louwyck), Angelica (played by an exquisite Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister), and their four daughters live just over the poverty line by selling bees and honey and growing their own food. The two older girls, Marinella and the oldest sister, Gelsomina, in particular, play a crucial role in the success, such as it is, of the family enterprise. And indeed, it is Gelsomina–whose name is a reference to Giulietta Masina’s character in Fellini’s La strada (1954)–who does most of the heavy lifting in the family (and in the film). Sensible, hardworking, and watchful in the way of early adolescents, Gelsomina (Alexandra Maria Longu) is also the source of one of the film’s several “wonders”: demonstrating an uncanny intimacy with the world of bees, she is able to hold them in her mouth and allow them to walk on her face without being stung.

She is also the first to succumb to another, even more spectacular “wonder”–namely, the tinsel and glitter glamour of a trashy, low-budget television show, Land of Wonders, in which local farmer families compete to demonstrate their commitment to local cultural heritage (read: to be picturesque) for cash prizes. Against her father’s wishes, she enters the family in the competition, for which they must dress in kitschy faux Etruscan costumes and describe their products on camera. Needless to say, they fail miserably when Wolfgang, usually so quick to spout doomsday prophecies that his “back to the land” ethos is meant to resist, stammers and stutters in front of the camera, only to be saved by Gelsomina’s bee trick. These are the emotional stakes of the film: the encounter between Wolfgang and Angelica’s ruralist worldview and modern, consumer society.

Put in those terms, however, the conflict loses much of its nuance. For The Wonders is not the usual encroachment narrative lamenting the loss of traditional values in the face of rampant capitalism. On the contrary, Gelsomina’s world is tough and thankless. The land her family works is not a romanticized, idyllic garden but muddy, bleak, and a constant battleground on which to fight for subsistence. As one of Wolfgang’s German friends, a remnant from the couple’s apparently more politically engaged youth, comments, “You used to fight, now you just clean and produce.” What’s more, Wolfgang and Angelica don’t live off the land by necessity, but by choice, the logical result of their vaguely apocalyptic philosophy. It was nonetheless perhaps not the most successful choice, considering their limited farming skills and their temperaments (his domineering and angry, hers long-suffering). Especially telling is Wolfgang’s astonishing impracticality, as when he buys Gelsomina a camel as a reward for her hard work. Baffled by new EU laws governing the food-preparation hygiene standards, they are eventually forced to sell the house and sleep on the lawn with the camel. It is, in short, a failed experiment.

Nor does the lure of the modern appear to be particularly evil. Gelsomina’s interactions with a more sophisticated friend are benign; they watch television on the living-room couch, bemusedly observe their male classmates’ demonstrations of middle-school bravado with their motor scooters, and work at the local agricultural fair. Gelsomina, and especially her little sister Marinella, listen to anodyne pop music in which a breathless female voice sings of undying devotion; it’s all pretty innocent. The attraction of modern mainstream life is most directly embodied by Milly, the platinum-wigged, spangled, and bedazzling host of Land of Wonders. Played by the Italian superstar Monica Bellucci, Milly is beautiful and melancholy, gamely running through her lines and applauding the yokels whose ultimate desire is to turn their rundown farms into expensive bed-and-breakfasts, ideally with a large female clientele to provide potential wives. Her interest in the girls, though apparently authentic, is feeble and inconsequential, consisting of the gift of some flyers advertising the television program and a used hairpin.

Indeed, the program is a monument to low production values. Teenage dancers perform high school choreography between contestants. The jury consists of local authorities who spout platitudes about the old days. Otherwise dignified men are made to dress in fake animal skins and wolf headdresses more reminiscent of Native American than Etruscan origins, and the women in snake-themed jewelry and pastel-colored nymph costumes in a Cleopatra–Greek goddess mashup. Yet there are two moments of transcendence in this most unlikely setting. The first is Gelsomina’s bee trick, accompanied by the extraordinary whistling of Martin, a German teenager with a criminal record who is being fostered by Gelsomina’s family for money. The second, more moving, event is the traditional song, haunting and harmonically complex, sung by four women, including the ancient and reluctant grandmother of the wolf-head-dressed contestant. They have been essentially coerced into singing by the program’s producers, and the film does not treat the song with any particular reverence, for which reason this is perhaps the film’s clearest example of its attitude toward rural tradition, its clear-eyed acceptance of the rarity–as well as the authenticity–of its beauty.

Ultimately, the film’s concern seems to be with agency. Characters are consistently confronted with the need to make choices, starting with the decision by the educated Wolfgang and Angelica not to return to the land but to commit to inhabiting it in the first instance. Will the family bring the honey production facility up to code? Will Martin and the peasant women whistle and sing or remain silent? Will the family enter the television contest? Will Wolfgang “fight,” or continue to “clean and produce”? Will Angelica stay with Wolfgang, or leave him? Here the reference to Fellini seems relevant as well, since the Gelsomina of La strada spends the film in near continuous doubt about whether to stay or leave the burlish, womanizing performer, her partner (or more precisely, her owner) Zampanò.

Beyond La strada, Fellini is a crucial point of reference for The Wonders, since so many of his films, from The White Sheik (1952) to Amarcord (1973) to Ginger and Fred (1986), deal with the clash between reality and the glamourizing effects of representation, whether in fotoromanzi (romances in comic-strip form), in cinema, or on television. Similarly, we note Milly’s melancholy and her superficial glamour. When she slowly and ponderously removes her massive wig of platinum-blond coils, she reveals a much more modest head of hair, plastered down with pins, as Gelsomina observes with astonishment her tired transformation. We might also mention Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978), which presents an equally unromanticized view of traditional rural life. These references are more than simple homages to Fellini and Olmi; Rohrwacher here is tapping into a long-standing literary and cinematic concern with Italian national and regional identities, here articulated as a tension around cultural patrimony.

Happy as Lazzaro, also written by Rohrwacher and starring her sister Alba, presents a more extreme case of the collision of urban and rural worlds. It tells the story of Lazzaro, an orphaned young man being raised in a community of sharecroppers working in indentured servitude for a marchioness, though unbeknownst to them the sharecropping, or mezzadria, system has long been outlawed. This film is even less nostalgic about country living than The Wonders; the farmers of the ironically named estate of Inviolata (literally, “unviolated, intact, uncorrupt”) live promiscuously, in near squalor and in crippling debt.

Ultimately, the film’s concern seems to be with agency.

As is typical of the fairy-tale form, the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad; not only does the marchioness unlawfully deceive and oppress the farmers, but she made her fortune selling tobacco. We are not, in other words, meant to have doubts about the quality of her character. Similarly, Lazzaro is equally unequivocal in his innocence. On the run from dawn until dusk, he works constantly, often for other people, who take advantage of his apparently constitutional inability to take things at anything other than face value or to see anything but good. As the marchioness explains to her son, Tancredi, she takes advantage of the farmers, who in turn take advantage of Lazzaro. Tancredi: But maybe Lazzaro doesn’t take advantage of anyone? Marchioness: That’s impossible.

When the spoiled, manipulative Tancredi decides to run away from his mother, he enlists Lazzaro to bring him food and, worse, to plant false evidence to make it seem that Tancredi has been kidnapped. Though American critics have been quick to read Tancredi’s and Lazzaro’s relationship as an unlikely but moving friendship, Italian critics have no sympathy for Tancredi. And I would have to agree; the film goes out of its way to create of Tancredi an unsympathetic brat who matures into a bloated, scheming fraudster of the first degree.

In the course of assisting Tancredi, Lazzaro falls off a cliff. I won’t reveal what happens next except to say that from this point in the film, the fairy-tale structure begins to predominate.

Compared to The Wonders, Happy as Lazzaro has fewer intertextual references but more allusions to different forms of storytelling–in addition to the fairy tale, myths, fables, and the epic and oral traditions all find space in this story of the aptly named Lazzaro. Tancredi, for example, shares his name with one of the heroes of Torquato Tasso’s Renaissance epic poem Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme liberata) and quotes another epic poem of the same era, Ludovico Ariosto’s The Frenzy of Orlando (Orlando furioso). Antonia, the character played by Alba Rohrwacher, recounts a fable about a wolf who spares a man who has the odor of goodness. The sharecroppers, during a rare moment of reprieve from their labors, gather before a cantastorie (a wandering singer, a typical figure in rural and illiterate societies) to hear his story. And Lazzaro himself, besides recalling his biblical namesake, is a version of the figure of the candid or innocent à la Voltaire, Bontempelli, and Brecht, among others: an innocent optimist whose constitutive goodness at once spares him (from the wolf, at least) and condemns him.

Eventually, the sharecroppers are released from servitude and make their way to the city. Here, as in The Wonders, Rohrwacher is not interested in easy dichotomies, as their ignorance, thievery, and grifting evinces. A chance encounter with Tancredi raises their hopes for a good meal and an opportunity to make peace with their former master, leading predictably to disappointment and contempt, besides planting the notion in Lazzaro’s head that will eventually lead to his downfall.

Clearly, Rohrwacher likes allegory. Besides the heavily allegorical films under review, her 2011 film Celestial Body (Corpo celeste) focused on an early adolescent girl’s exposure to a Catholic Church filled with cheap, gaudy rituals, tinny pop music, amateurish choreography and dance parties, totally uninterested clergy, and rampant consumerism as substitutes for faith, family, and friendship. Another commonality among the films is their distrust of characters who dazzle, whether with their looks, their behavior, or their silver tongues. The bridging of the wondrous or the marvelous (in the original sense of the words: extraordinary, miraculous, astonishing) with grim, dismal reality, too, is a concern shared by these films, as is a pervasive melancholy and the enduring sense of the mediocrity of the world despite the presence of good people … all of which demands that we ask, Why make these films now?

Part of the answer can perhaps be found in a reaction to the increasing corruption of political discourse and social/interpersonal relations in Italy during the past quarter-century. In particular, I refer to the culture of the Berlusconi era and its aftermath. Prime minister for nine years starting in 1994 and ending in 2011, Berlusconi presided over governments that were regularly accused of tax fraud, corruption, mismanagement, and the unlawful pursuit of personal interests. His social agenda included very public extramarital affairs, sex parties, often involving underage women and the exchange of large quantities of cash, explicit and unapologetic racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, as well as the creation of a general cultural climate in which the cheaters and shirkers were lauded as clever and the hard workers as fools and dupes. Truth be told, Berlusconi did not inaugurate this culture in Italian politics, though it is safe to say that he took it to a much larger, more visible, and totally unapologetic extreme. Many Italian filmmakers reacted by producing a series of movies that explored everything from political apathy and the fecklessness of the left (April [Aprile], dir. Nanni Moretti, 1998); political corruption, often re-dimensioned as Mafia corruption (Placido Rizzotto, dir. Pasquale Scimeca, and The One Hundred Steps [I cento passi], dir. Marco Tullio Giordana, 2000); unabashed 1960s nostalgia (The Best of Youth [La meglio gioventù], dir. Marco Tullio Giordana, 2003); the Years of Lead (Good Morning, Night [Buongiorno, notte], dir. Marco Bellocchio 2003); and the vacuity of growing individualism and shallow strategies of self-reward (Reality, dir. Matteo Garrone, 2012; The Last Kiss [L’ultimo bacio], dir. Gabriele Muccino, 2001; Remember Me [Ricordati di me], dir. Gabriele Muccino 2003); to perhaps the most critically acclaimed and explicit critiques of the Berlusconi era, The Yes Man (Il Portaborse, dir. Daniele Luchetti, 1992), The Caiman (Il caimano, dir. Nanni Moretti, 2006), and The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza, dir. Paolo Sorrentino, 2013). Seen in this context, Rohrwacher represents the next generation of filmmakers to deal with Berlusconi-era fallout, from its tinselly emptiness to its climate of feeble inconclusiveness.

But beyond this historical context, we must also point to the specificity of Rohrwacher’s vision, which zeroes in consistently on the threat of manipulation to which adolescents, particularly adolescent girls such as Marta of Celestial Body or Gelsomina of The Wonders or even Antonia, the closest thing to a friend Lazzaro has, are vulnerable. Here we might invoke the director’s camerawork as well, which closely observes the bodies of girls and young women without eroticizing, invading, or engineering them for ulterior motives. Rohrwacher also pays close attention to cinematic and literary precedents, as well as to the question of how different forms of storytelling impact the reception of a story’s message, making her work at once more self-reflexive than some of the films I listed earlier and more attuned to the ways filmmaking as a practice can be complicit in the confirmation of a climate of ethical vacuity. Finally, her films complicate the usual tropes about bucolic life and the dangers and evils of consumer capitalism by presenting scenarios in which a shared mission or a common vocabulary, whether it be that of Catholic faith as in Celestial Body, of the forestalling of the end of the world as in The Wonders, or its welcoming, as in Happy as Lazzaro, neither protects nor draws together those who experience it. And yet all three films produce, almost in spite of themselves, a vision of transcendence, of the sacred, of what people used commonly to call grace. It may be hidden, grubby, or ignoble, she seems to say, but it’s out there nonetheless.

Elizabeth Leake is professor of Italian and director of graduate studies at Columbia University. She is the author of several works, including The Reinvention of Ignazio Silone, After Words: Suicide and Authorship in Twentieth Century Italy, and Internal Exile in Fascist Italy.
Originally published:
July 1, 2019


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