Film director Alice Rohrwacher: “Making images is a form of faith'

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”.

Watch a trailer for Happy As Lazzaro.

Talking on Skype from her kitchen in Umbria, close to Orvieto, Rohrwacher laughs when I ask how she would classify the style of Lazzaro – magical neorealism, perhaps? “I can’t really define it. If you want to be free with your imagination, you need to be very realistic, but you have also to shift things a little bit.”

By way of illustration, slipping between Italian and English, she recalls a place she used to visit as a child – the 16th-century gardens of Bomarzo, famous for their statues of monsters. “There’s a house there, a perfect little house with two floors and inside, a table, a fireplace – but it’s tilted. That always stuck with me. You need to be on a slant to get the best view of the monsters. It’s exactly the same with Lazzaro – the best way to let the imagination in is to be slightly askew.”

Her new film’s setting is an imaginary village called Inviolata (“unspoiled”) that, Rohrwacher says, exists in “a time out of time”. She created it from scratch, not far from her home, with the help of cast members recruited from the local population; the process involved planting a tobacco crop. This painstaking approach stems from what Rohrwacher calls the “enigma of the real… When you see something very beautiful that’s real, like a flower, it seems fake. And when you see a beautiful flower handmade by an artist, it seems real. The best things in reality feel fake. So it was important to have a true world for this film – animals, plants, everything really had to be living.”

The film’s young hero, Lazzaro (Italian for Lazarus), embodies that timeless archetype, the holy fool: he’s played by newcomer Adriano Tardiolo, an economics student with huge dark eyes who could have stepped out of an ancient Roman frieze. Rohrwacher sees Lazzaro as an alternative male hero, of a kind she felt Italy needed. “I see my country today, with its ethic of brutalism and male strength, and I wanted to go against that. I wanted to show someone who is perceived as innocent and weak as a man, but who is really good.”

Rohrwacher, 37, was born in Fiesole near Florence, but grew up in the Umbrian countryside, the daughter of an Italian mother, a teacher, and a German beekeeper father. Like the parents in The Wonders, hers were 60s idealists who believed in self-sufficiency. Like them, they set up home in rundown premises abandoned by farmers who had moved to the cities – like the house where Rohrwacher lives now, she says. But The Wonders is only partly autobiographical: “All the stories are invented, but the world where they happen is my world.”

Alice Rohrwacher

Photograph: Chiara Goia/The Observer

One difference is that there are four sisters in the dysfunctional, hippie-ish clan of The Wonders, but only two Rohrwacher daughters in real life. The director’s older sister is actor Alba Rohrwacher, who stars in Lazzaro and The Wonders – in the latter, effectively playing her own mother – and is a mainstay of contemporary Italian cinema, first winning international attention as Tilda Swinton’s daughter in the Luca Guadagnino film I Am Love. Her input is essential to Alice’s work, the film-maker says. “We share the same imagination. When she reads something I write, she can imagine it the way I imagine it, so she can criticise it on a different level.”

Rohrwacher learned very little about cinema growing up. She studied classical literature in Turin, worked as an assistant in theatre and eventually found herself shooting and editing a documentary – mainly, she says, because she enjoyed spending time with its subjects, circus performers. Eventually a producer suggested she make a feature. The result was Corpo Celeste, about a young girl reluctantly submitting to a crash course in Catholicism. There was no religion whatsoever in her own upbringing, but Rohrwacher says she is fascinated by faith, of whatever sort. “I make cinema – I’m a very religious person,” she laughs. “Making images is a form of faith.”

Italy has its history of female film-makers – notably Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties) and Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) – but they are still relatively few. Rohrwacher is not the person to ask about this issue, she says. “It’s like asking the survivor of a shipwreck: ‘Why are you alone on the beach?’ You should ask the people who built the ship, who steered it. Ask the people who decide who gets the money.”

The most celebrated current Italian directors have tended to be those with a penchant for baroque stylistics – Luca Guadagnino (Suspiria), Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), Matteo Garrone (Tale of Tales). Rohrwacher is perhaps closer in spirit to film-makers who map the rougher grain of reality, like Jonas Carpignano (A Ciambra), another Scorsese protege, or documentarist Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea). Her absolute favourite in the national tradition is Roberto Rossellini, the pioneering director of neorealist classics such as Rome, Open City.

Does she consider herself a political film-maker? “Of course. There’s a cinema of prose and a cinema of poetry and the cinema of poetry is always involved with politics. That’s because it works in questions, and to start to think with your head is a political process.”

Rohrwacher declines to discuss her private life, but she lives with her partner and her daughter Anita, 12, who plays one of the village children in Lazzaro. The nearest cinema, 60 kilometres away, shows superhero movies dubbed into Italian, but Rohrwacher far prefers taking her daughter to Bologna for the annual Cinema Ritrovato festival of vintage rediscoveries. “She can see the best movies ever on a big, big screen together with thousands of people. That,” says this secretly religious film-maker, “is paradise on Earth.”

Happy As Lazzaro is out on 5 April


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