Human beings are like animals.

Set them free and they realise they are slaves.

- The Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna

A mysterious, neo-realist evocation of a timeless pastoral past contrasted with industrial modernity, the film was awarded Best Screen Play at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

A tale of friendship and exploitation, the film follows the lives of a naive, hardworking group of peasants, who toil their days among the tobacco leaves of the estate of a domineering marchesa.

Their hamlet, known as Inviolata (pure), has been isolated for years from city life due to the flooding of a nearby dam.

Inviolata is effectively a feudal estate; the farmers are “sharecroppers” who work for no wage under the “Queen of Cigarettes” (known colloquially by the workers as the “Poison Viper”), Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), who with her snobbish son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) resides in an antiquated mansion.

The countrymen remain forever in debt, yet seem otherwise healthy, basked in sunlight and with an age-old knowledge of the land.

Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is one worker, gifted with the face of an angel and a hard-working spirit.

His innocence renders him prone to exploitation.

The sound of his name being called across the valleys is a recurring theme throughout the film.

“Lazzaro, Lazzaro,” the peasants call.

“Carry grandma upstairs ... collect the tobacco for us ... stand guard on the chickens throughout the night.”

The “good man” Lazzaro complies with all requests, all the while maintaining his saintly nature exemplified by soft smile and wide, sunny eyes.

When the marchesa’s self-absorbed son Tancredi visits the fields, he takes advantage of Lazzaro to orchestrate his own kidnapping.

Their secret friendship sends the estate into turmoil as they scour the fields for the missing marquis.

The second half of the film sees Lazzaro come head-to-head with the horrors of contemporary society.

Lazzaro is named after Saint Lazarus, who, according to the Gospel of John, is restored to life four days after his death.

The beguiling and magical Lazzaro adventures into a world characterised by industrial development, exploitation and class discrepancy.

The film is a successful allegory of the ongoing rifts that haunt contemporary Italy.

Lazzaro’s friendship with the mean-spirited Tancredi parodies class exploitations which have existed for centuries between nobility and peasants.

The film is a surrealist, enticing throwback to neo-realist films such as Pier Pasolini’s La Ricotta (1963) and Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000), in which the dispossessed make money from harvesting wild herbs and vegetables from the roadside, as happens in the ending scenes of Lazzaro.

Rohrwacher’s skilful directing and the photography of Hélène Louvart imbues the natural landscapes with a sense of the sublime.

And this magia follows the peasants, weightlessly, even when reduced to living in an abandoned structure amidst the roaring city.

Happy as Lazzaro is now showing at Palace Chauvel Cinema in Paddington, Sydney, and at Cinema Nova in Carlton, Melbourne.