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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
At first, we think we’re in familiar folkloric territory as a young man serenades his beloved in the countryside at night, with traditional bagpipe backing. The young lovebirds plight their troth, marsala is drunk, and so far we could be in the rural nineteenth century. Bit by bit, however, things become less clear: we’re definitely in the present day, as cellphones, headphones and hip-hop reveal, but these people are living in another era.
There are 26 inhabitants of various ages crammed into one house in a tiny village symbolically named Inviolata, amid a strange, quasi-lunar landscape of thistles and crags, all toiling to harvest tobacco for a haughty Marquesa (Nicoletta Braschi) who lives in a nearby mansion.
Something of an outsider within the community is a gentle, childlike, otherworldly young man named Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), whom everyone fondly tolerates and occasionally exploits. He ends up forming a bond of sorts with the Marquesa’s spoilt, foppish son Tancredi (Tomasso Ragno), who mounts a fake kidnap plot to get back at his mother. It misfires, and baffled police round up the villagers and take them to, supposedly, a better life.
Lazzaro, at this point, seems to have fallen permanently out of the action – but an unexpected future awaits this modern Lazarus, thanks to the supernatural intervention of one of the wolves that roam the locality. It would be a shame to reveal the audacious change of register that follows, dominating the film’s second half. Suffice to say that it finds Lazzaro reunited with some of his old acquaintances, including young single mother Antonia, rather older and played by the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher, and new friend Ultimo, inventive burglar and con artist.
What started as eccentric, seemingly nostalgic realism shifts in this second half into a dream-like, satirically inflected mode with echoes of Fellini’s La Strada and early Pasolini, in both its humour and its bleakness.