Alice's Wonderland: Neorealist Magic in the Films of Alice Rohrwacher
In just three films, Alice Rohrwacher has already cemented her status as a singular voice in contemporary cinema – her work lets fairytales comes to life and takes care of lonely imaginations. Caitlin Quinlan revisits the binding truths of the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
There is magic in the seams of an Alice Rohrwacher film; in the bleak and desolate landscapes of impoverished rural Italy, in the bittersweet pain of a child’s coming of age, in the battles with faith, family, and fortune that befall even the kindest of hearts. Rohrwacher’s voice as a director has been perfectly clear ever since her debut feature in 2011, Corpo Celeste. With The Wonders in 2014, and now her latest release Happy as Lazzaro, questions of legacy have been woven across her short but impressive filmography.
Her characters share land and nationhood with Rohrwacher herself. Navigating Umbria and the central regions of Italy that are familiar to her, she draws on influences from her childhood while also exposing the country’s ever-changing face. She sees how modernity has failed rural communities, how the grasp of religion holds fast through fear of the growing disillusionment of a population, and how the young long for the freedom to grow away from the traditions of the church and the generations before them.
These conflicts drive her films, structured and presented in alignment with the considerable cinematic history of her birthplace. Rohrwacher’s aesthetic as a filmmaker draws heavily from the neorealism of Italian cinema through the post-war years, from Rosselini’s Rome, Open City to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, both passionate works that empowered those fighting for humanity in the shadows of immorality. Where neorealism was often city-focused, Rohrwacher draws her storytelling out into the vast countryside or takes it to the smaller, rundown suburbs of cities where characters live on the margins. There is a raw beauty to be found, but there is also dereliction and decay. While the big city is never truly portrayed as a beacon of aspiration, there is a real sense that Rohrwacher’s young characters need to escape the limits of their surroundings in whatever way they can.
The director’s keen eye for observing brings her storytelling into a new realm, one that acknowledges her homeland’s past and uses it to inform a bright filmmaking future. The term ‘magic neorealism’ has been associated with Rohrwacher’s work directly in relation to Happy as Lazzaro, but both Corpo Celeste and The Wonders prove that this weaving together of the mystic and the real, the elevated and the earthly, has been Rohrwacher’s gift all along.
In Corpo Celeste, Rohrwacher exposes the toil of religion on a young girl’s coming of age, and the ways in which Catholicism in Italy lingers in the bodies of its devotees. The local church is struggling to keep the community’s youth interested, while the older women maintain the loyalty instilled in them from their own childhood. Marta, the film’s protagonist, represents a new generation keen to run away from authority to explore their changing world. Religion is everywhere in Corpo Celeste but for Marta, two specific crucifixes linger. The first, nestled in the cleavage of a television reporter, a symbol between symbols for Marta who steals her sister’s bras and pushes at her flesh prematurely, praying for change. The second, the crucifix intended for her Confirmation ceremony, lost among crashing rocks and waves and floating away from careless hands. There is movement and growth happening for Marta, and it is hard for her to see where God fits into that.
The Wonders equally foregrounds a young girl’s burgeoning adolescence in an environment that cannot contain her growth, nor that will allow her to enjoy the simplicity of childhood. Gelsomina is the sharpest daughter of a farming family and her beekeeping father teaches her all he knows, expecting her to inherit the business and stay loyal to her rural roots. Yet Gelsomina’s teenage mind has already started to wander, and when a national farming talent contest comes to town looking for the ‘wonders’ of the countryside, her fantasies can only blossom. The competition seems able to offer wealth and fame, recognition for the honey that her family specialises in and their hard work in contributing to the nation’s agricultural legacy.
Rohrwacher observes her characters’ worlds in their most naturally bare form, but in the grain of her favoured 16mm, there is always room for the meraviglioso. In The Wonders, Gelsomina’s usual attentiveness slips in a moment of panic and she forgets to place an empty bucket underneath the honey-dripping tap of the factory processor. The floor becomes coated in this liquid gold, a glorious mess that is so ludicrously impossible to clean. It is a scene of sheer futility that is still incredibly haptic, the thick honey so tangible yet elevated to the ethereal by the awe of the image. And, in Corpo Celeste, as a lampshade spins out of Marta’s hand, light and shadow dance and twirl around the kitchen walls in a minute of consuming tranquility. Rohrwacher bottles transcendence in these wild moments of abandon. She creates space for characters to experience recklessness, to let go of all the anxiety of growth that is stored up in these young bodies. There is a special blend of spirituality in these scenes, where fragments of unimagined beauty in their otherwise unremarkable lives become overwhelming.
The most explicit, otherworldly magic resides in Happy as Lazzaro. Named after the biblical Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus’ hand, Lazzaro mysteriously exists in the same boyish form across the film’s decades. First, as the young farmhand, Lazzaro is one of many exploited, unpaid, unregulated employees hired by Alfonsina de Luna, the head of an aristocratic family, to work on a tobacco plantation – but his generosity and innate sweetness worsens his predicament. Following every order without question, he is taunted and taken advantage of endlessly. Only a glimpse of companionship for Lazzaro arises when de Luna’s bratty son, Tancredi, seizes an opportunity to exploit his own family for money with Lazzaro’s help. The innocent farmhand sees Tancredi’s pursuit as his duty, and he holds dear the promise of friendship, brotherhood, and perhaps even love. After deciding to stage his own kidnapping, Tancredi also manages to expose the farm’s illegal activity to the police but little justice is served to Lazzaro and the mistreated workers. He is left roaming the rocky hillside alone while the others leave the estate, with no prospect of a clear and safe destination for either party.
As ever, Rohrwacher’s signature soft touches of the mystic appear; in the husks that fall like snow from the threshing machine, miraculous in the blistering Tuscan sun, or in the echoed quiet of the tobacco plants as Lazzaro roams through their leafy fields. Special amends must be made for Lazzaro through such torment and so, in Rohrwacher’s most audacious use of fantasy so far, she allows the boy to remain forever young. Raised from the dead, or suspended in time, who knows, Lazzaro is returned to the people he once knew in what seems like an entirely different world. Farm becomes city as their rural livelihoods are swapped for industrialised poverty. As Lazzaro’s fractured family struggles to come to terms with their new surroundings, the boy they thought was lost forever, or perhaps hadn’t even realised was gone, appears. It could be read as parable or fairytale – perhaps Lazzaro’s rebirth is his reward for a life lived with the best intentions, or his curse to be forever at the mercy of others.
At its core, it feels like Lazzaro’s return to the family and his immortal affection is Rohrwacher’s celebration of kindness. In her films, virtue never dies and magic outlives even the harshest of circumstances. The lives and struggles of Alice Rohrwacher’s characters are tied together, bonded by their lonely imaginations and the wonders around them. It’s easy to imagine Marta, Gelsomina, and Lazzaro would be devoted, loving companions if they ever crossed paths a trio of soft-spoken souls looking for their place in the world.
Caitlin Quinlan (@csaquinlan) is a film writer and Bechdel Test Fest team member from London. She regularly contributes to Little White Lies, Sight & Sound, and The Skinny.