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Happy as Lazzaro, a startlingly twisty Italian fairy tale, is now on Netflix

The enchanting Cannes winner mixes social commentary with magical realism.

Adriano Tardiolo stars in Happy As Lazzaro, which is now on Netflix.
Adriano Tardiolo stars in Happy as Lazzaro, which is now on Netflix.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every week, new original films debut on Netflix and other streaming services, often to much less fanfare than their big-screen counterparts. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.

Happy as Lazzaro

The premise: A pure-hearted young man named Lazzaro lives among sharecroppers on a farm in southern Italy. He is happy, despite being bossed around by everyone around him. And then his story takes quite a turn.

What it’s about: It defeats the magic of Happy as Lazzaro to give away too much of the film’s plot, so mind-bending is its big twist. The movie premiered to praise at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this summer, where it won Best Screenplay for its writer and director Alice Rohrwacher, and then continued its triumphant reception through the fall festival season as well.

Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) lives among farmers who are clearly being exploited by their wealthy boss. They are poor, even as their world is rich with sensory experience — and the tug between those two is the focus of Happy as Lazzaro’s first half. The young man is so good-natured that he seems almost simple at times. And yet his life, despite its hardships, holds appeal and seems in some ways idyllic. Happy as Lazzaro (which is in Italian) seems, for a long stretch, like a richly textured Italian fairy tale, or a parable for how to live the good life.

But then the twist comes, unearthing some of what’s really going on while keeping Lazzaro’s goodness, and the happiness he derives from that goodness, intact. The result is a realist tale about labor, class, and cruelty, while also being a moral fable with a fantastical core. (And it’s worth knowing that Happy as Lazzaro is based on real events that happened in Italy in the 1980s.)

Critical consensus: Happy as Lazzaro currently has a score of 86 on Metacritic. At the New York Times, A.O. Scott writes that “a rich sense of mystery pervades this movie. You succumb to its strangeness the way that a child is enveloped in a bedtime story, trusting the teller even when you don’t fully understand the tale or know where it’s going.”

Where to watch: Happy as Lazzaro is streaming on Netflix.