Floating miracles. Alice Rohrwacher | Panorama

23 September, 2021

From the age of silent cinema to the present: classical masterpieces, remakes, the rise of certain genres, our column „Panorama” takes a ride through history and sets its sights on films that were not given enough attention at the time of their release, or, conversely, on discussions that were never brought to light.

I recently saw Four Roads, Alice Rohrwacher’s short film made in the pandemic; she is probably the most coagulated voice in the revival of Italian neorealism. Seeds of neorealism can be found everywhere in contemporary Italian cinema, from Matteo Garrone’s surprising fairy tales to Emma Dante’s musical coming-of-age, The Macaluso Sisters. But the legacy is not taken on without adjustments: despite the floating drops of magical realism, Rohrwacher’s films are firmly anchored in the socio-political flesh of modern capitalism, showing that no matter how much you dive into immediate unreality, dreamers still need to put some food in their bellies at the end of the day.

Four Roads
Four Roads

I’ve digressed, alas – Four Roads also veers off this agenda, it’s a free-form documentary about how Rohrwacher tried to somehow cancel the distances imposed by the pandemic by approaching her neighbors, whose houses are placed like cardinal points, on 4 streets; she captures them doing house chores, looking into the camera, grinning at their pets. Unlike other films exploring the anxieties caused by the pandemic, Rohrwacher is oblivious to that; to her, everything is solar, light-giving. In the reflections of expired film stock, there seems to emerge more transcendence than ever, with trees swaying in the wind and crops growing outside the edgy structure of reality. That put me in the mood for revisiting her previous work, the Belucci-fairy with pompoms, the girls who gather honey with their arms, the little girl who recites prayers from the Bible, but has no idea what they mean. I appease my enthusiasm as much as I can and set off with a great deal of joy that I’m about to talk about an exceptional filmmaker whose stories have something of Peter Pan and Greek tragedy, and a charm that I hope never gets old.

Le Meraviglie
Le Meraviglie

Rohrwacher’s virtual continuity on Italian neorealism (along with Fellini and De Sica) is outlined not only by her protagonists, who are ultimately big-hearted individuals crushed by shortcomings, but also by anchoring them in habits that come as anachronistic, if not outdated, out of touch with technology. In support of my argument, one character tells another, who wants to use his cell phone, that there is no signal anywhere, so he better throw it in the trash. The beekeeping business in Le Meraviglie, which is run by the daughters in Wolfgang’s family (who is nothing more than a buffoon wrapped in a Zampano aura, and the eldest daughter, of course, is called Gelsomina), seems both a blessing and a chore. The curse cast on the poor family, that lives in a ramshackle multi-storey house, doesn’t seem to be lifted even after a fairy touches the girls’ heads, like in Pinnochio: Wolfgang is a stubborn wolf, who spends money on all kinds of exotic whims (for example, he buys Gelsomina a camel she wished for ever since she was a child, just to clap the animal in irons). The honey they produce comes with an obsessive routine, that of unloading the buckets (the huge centrifuge, crammed with frames, starts dripping, and at every few hours someone has to empty it and replace it with a new one). At one point, the father is reminded that his daughters are not his slaves – it’s clear that he exploits them, and that Gelsomina is his favourite, but he also treats her the harshest. Still, this work can’t be done without approvals, paperwork and rules – the improvised laboratory where the girls slave away, which is the stuffy basement of their house, doesn’t operate in accordance with the regulation, and all that can be done to postpone the moment is to come up with all sorts of stuff; the girls could be taken away by social services at any time, but Wolfgang, recklessly, accepts all sorts of deals (for example, they take in an uncouth boy, who only knows how to whistle, with the promise to civilize him, to show him what it means to have a family).

Lazzaro Felice
Lazzaro Felice

Rohrwacher’s subsequent film, Lazzaro Felice, is also about exploitation and obsolete habits – dozens of people work the land of a marquise, unaware that slavery had long since been abolished; month by month, they remain in the red zone, but they’re happy that at least they have a roof over their heads. I have a gem here, must have thought Rohrwacher when she wrote Lazzaro Felice, because one of these souls is Lazzaro himself, a smiling dummy who takes on every task, no matter how hard: he looks after sheep, carries the hay, takes care of the fields. What can best sum up this kind of pure kindness is probably the taxing naivete: the others, exploited by the marquise’s family, oppress in turn the weakest of them, Lazzaro, the buffoon with a blank stare. If in previous films the director left the transcendent at a floating level, here it is visible: Lazzaro is touched by God, meaning that, after suffering a head injury, he remains in a fog for several decades and miraculously wakes up in full capitalism, where he hasn’t aged a day. You would think that this sign comes as striking to the rest of the world, but no one takes the miracle too seriously – his loved ones, now older and poorer than before, are concerned with living in disused towers, where they savor some expired chips. They see him as an undead, but one to whom you provide food and a place to sleep, so a new inconvenience. What’s so insolent about this world is that even an epiphany like that makes no difference to anyone. Similarly, in Corpo Celeste, the crucifix of Jesus, transported by car, falls at some point into a ravine and floats on water, a sign that it does not want to reach its destination. This moment is the equivalent of the metaphor in La Dolce Vita, another allusion to neorealism, where Fellini carries the statue of Jesus with a helicopter over Rome.

 

The fairytale personification of Rohrwacher’s stories is downright baroque: the marquise’s mansion, the circular castle in Inviolata, is dusty and worn out, but in its creaking drawers lies the infinite dowry, consisting of porcelain cutlery. Faced with this chance, decades later, some of the people who served her steal in vans the objects that were left in the house, broken lamps and vases; then, they sell the mythology of their own disenchantment, a newspaper article explaining the strange fact that, at the end of the 20th century, some naive people still didn’t know that they cannot be someone’s property anymore. They live on the outskirts, in their own disused castle, the water tower, where there is an improvised floor, where the youngest son with an earring in his ear sits and reads the newspaper. This outpouring of exoticism, of embellishments, is part of Rohrwacher’s films’ charm. She may well have overly sweetened this universe, though Rohrwacher is not gentle with her protagonists; despite her sympathy/empathy for them, she puts them in extreme situations, so that they can see the paradoxical maladaptation they live in. Forced to leave Inviolata, the wretched inhabitants are afraid of the water that reaches to their ankles, because they have never crossed it before. Phoebe Chen says in an article for Mubi that Rohrwacher sees anachronism as an existential condition of her protagonists – it is true that, outside their own circle, none of them would resist. Lazzaro pretty much comes as the lifeline for his poor family – recognizing all the plants he knew all his life, he shows them that on the side of the road grow all the wonders they could eat or sell without consequence.

Corpo Celeste
Corpo Celeste

I love this type of political cinema, which is ostentatious, but gentle at the same time – from this point of view, Rohrwacher is predictable, slightly mannerist, she constantly adopts a filter that in turn distorts contemporary reality, softening the boundaries. It’s quite clear that the thesis depicted in Lazzaro is that history repeats itself, but at the same time, it seems like an endless race – it feels like a continuous present, where you can go back in time to within a stone’s throw (or maybe you never left the past?). Anyway, it says nothing new about the issues of capitalism and the colonizing boogeyman, only that it should be avoided as much as possible. It’s a double-edged sword when it comes to the fragile situations the characters go through – what would have been better, for them to remain in the black hole of ignorance or to adapt to the rhythms of the rest of the world? Rohrwacher is very attached to Greek philosophy, especially Platonic philosophy – the conclusion is obviously related to the impossibility of establishing the common good: do you prefer a big lie or a stinging truth? I would draw a parallel with Radu Ciorniciuc’s documentary, Acasa, My Home – in which a family is torn from the piece of the suburbs where they were living their fantasy to adapt to the times – where is the difference? There’s almost none; the cynicism of the times and the emphatic paradoxes we live in won’t even allow us to live our dream at the edge of the world anymore, civilizers will find you even if you hide in a snake pit. Then, there is a gap disseminated by neo-capitalism, where the middle classes have completely disappeared, making the stretch between classes more and more coarse, and the exploiting pillars visible: the bank, debts, loans. Ultimately, however, Rohrwacher’s characters are not aware of the machinations behind, but are gently carried away by the torrent of the rivers in which they bathe; at a stone’s throw from civilization, the naive are still frightened by the howls of wolves, as if that were the only possible danger to disturb their nights.

Journalist and film critic, with a master's degree in film critics. Collaborates with Scena9, Acoperișul de Sticlă, FILM and FILM Menu magazines. For Films in Frame, she brings the monthly top of films and writes the monthly editorial Panorama, published on a Thursday. In her spare time, she retires in the woods where she pictures other possible lives and flying foxes.