The Italian film “Happy as Lazzaro” was a surprise hit on Netflix this summer. Yet I suspect many of those who saw it might have been disappointed. Not because it isn’t a fantastic movie (it won the award for best screenplay at Cannes last year, after all), but because it is a serious work that threatens to expose us for who we really are. 

Allow me to explain. 

Directed by Alice Rohrwacher, the films tells the story of its namesake, a young man who lives among a group of peasants living as slaves on a tobacco farm in rural Tuscany. The farm is owned by the Marquise Alfonsina de Luna and managed by her affable but manipulative farm administrator.

Lazzaro, at first, does not seem like someone anyone would ever admire. Hardly a hero and more of a fool, he is neither intelligent, nor savvy, nor even particularly religious. He is content to do what his superiors tell him to do, however inane,  and takes correction from everyone and anyone. 

His only remarkable feature is that he falls into a trance from time to time, a behavior described by the laborers he lives with as “staring into the void.” But one suspects there is more than “void gazing” going on here.

One of the darkest and yet most prophetic scenes comes very early in the film, when one of the women taking care of the sharecroppers’ children tells a small child that his mother is dead. 

“Killed herself to get away from you,” she says. When he cries, she laughs and says, “How ugly he looks when he cries.” 

Such dialogue is depicted as sport — mere teasing; everyone here apparently does it. Besides, the woman thinks she is doing the boy a favor; he must get used to abuse like everyone else. Having already met the innocent, happy-go-lucky Lazzaro, the viewer shudders at horrors sure to come.

The film begins as a work of social realism, documenting the class conflict and the effects of economic exploitation, then quickly evolves into a saint’s story along the lines of Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” and I. B. Singer’s “Gimple the Fool.” 

All three of these works feature a “Holy Fool” as their central character, not an epic, comic, or tragic hero like you find in most popular fiction. Such heroic protagonists show us how to be “excellent,” “famous,” “lovable,” or “good.” 

Holy Fools serve quite a different function: They expose our pretenses and challenge our convictions. The conflict in such narratives does not hinge on the clash between good and evil, so much as on an interior struggle between compassion and indifference. 

When the spoiled son of the marquise fakes his own kidnapping to get back at his mother, Lazzaro helps him, not because he hates the upper class or has any grudge against the marquise, but simply because he likes his friend and wants to help. And yet in a mysterious turn of events, the self-kidnapping (of which Lazzaro is an accomplice) leads to a police intervention and the subsequent liberation of the entire tobacco farm.

Still, the poor peasants find it impossible to benefit from this turn of good fortune, largely because they possess few skills and even less virtue to make a go of it in the city. Relying on natural ruthlessness, they become petty criminals, committing larcenies and inflicting their hardheartedness on one another and any innocent bystanders they may come across.

The trick to grasping the allegorical elements in stories like these is for the viewer not to identify with the Holy Fool. After all, they are nothing like us.

Rather, such tales ask us to see ourselves in all the “smart,” clever people who mock him or have contempt for his innocence, or try to manage or exploit it — people like the farm manager who have spent their lives learning the art of the deal or the “polite” nun who scoots Lazzaro out of the cathedral during music practice. (I, for one, saw myself in the tragically hip, spoiled son of the marquise.)

These people mirror our egocentric lives; the Holy Fool marks the contrast.

In this sense, “Happy as Lazzaro” is a satire. There are no heroes here, only victims, dupes, and perpetrators. The rich exploit the poor, the poor exploit one another, while the middle class look after their reputations.  

If there is any thesis statement in this film, it comes in a scene where the marquise reads to her child and friend from the second chapter of Thomas à Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ.” The irony of her reading such wisdom to her child reveals her self-deluded megalomania, and yet the words retain their power:

“He who knows himself well is humbled in his own presence. And the praise of other men provokes no pleasure. If I were to know everything in the universe and scorned charity, who would bring me to the grace of God?”  

This film has stayed with me over the several months since I first watched it. It even got me looking forward to the many moments of correction in my life, however seemingly minor or unimportant.

The day after watching it I was scolded by a dog groomer for my dog’s fleas and the thistle he found in his toe. And then my barber reprimanded me for not knowing the kind of haircut I wanted. “I don’t know; cut it like you always do!”

Lazzaro’s good intentions, like all of ours, may be powerless against the treacheries of this world, and yet our failures to overcome those treacheries do not condemn us in the eyes of God but procure his mercy. And a man who knows this will be humble in his own presence,  accepting the vicissitudes of divine providence with great joy.

Perhaps this is what it means to be as happy as Lazzaro.