The Italian film-maker’s third movie, Happy As Lazzaro, is being hailed as visionary. Here she discusses her childhood in rural Umbria and why her work is always political

As a child, Italian film-maker Alice Rohrwacher would accompany her parents on road journeys, often at night, transporting the produce of the family beekeeping business. Whenever they arrived somewhere, she would sit in the dark and wonder where she was. “I’d have to work it out from what I could hear, not from what I could see, so I’d listen to the place and the information would enter my mind – and then I’d open my eyes.” That, she says, is why her three feature films all start at night, to put her viewer in the same position. “You have to imagine a world, and then compare the world you imagine with the world outside.”

The universe of Alice Rohrwacher’s films – that’s “Alice” pronounced “A-lee-che” – sometimes resembles the world as we know it, but pure imagination has increasingly played a part. Her debut, Corpo Celeste (2011), was a largely realist drama about a young girl’s Catholic education. Follow-up The Wonders, which won the grand prix in Cannes in 2014, was an impressionistic evocation of Rohrwacher’s childhood, garnished with mischievous satire of Italian TV (Monica Bellucci as a gameshow presenter‑cum‑Etruscan nature goddess).

In her latest feature, Happy As Lazzaro, Rohrwacher ventures into visionary new territory. Based on a real case that happened in the 90s, it is about a rural community tricked by an aristocrat into working on her land in quasi-feudal conditions. Shot on 16mm celluloid, like all Rohrwacher’s features, the film at first resembles an Italian heritage piece in the style of Ermanno Olmi’s revered The Tree of Wooden Clogs – rustic bagpipes and all. But then comes an abrupt detour into magic and time travel, with echoes of Fellini or Pasolini. Whether taken as folk tale, absurdist fantasy or political parable, Happy As Lazzaro works a spell that won Rohrwacher a best screenplay award in Cannes last year. Martin Scorsese subsequently boosted the film’s profile by signing up as executive producer; Sofia Coppola is also an admirer, and has interviewed the director for the New York Times. That paper, along with the UK’s Sight & Sound magazine, placed Lazzaro high on its best of 2018 list, AO Scott hailing it as a film that has “transcended all categories and conventions”.

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