How ‘Happy as Lazzaro’ and ‘In My Room’ Breathe New Life Into the Time Travel Trope

A pair of inventive films twist the time travel trope into compelling new shapes that turn a classic storyline into something revelatory.
How 'Happy as Lazzaro' and 'In My Room' and the Time Travel Trope
"Happy as Lazzaro"

The following essay was produced as part of the 2018 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 56th edition of the New York Film Festival.

From the beginning of Ulrich Köhler’s “In My Room,” the timing is already off. A cameraman, later revealed to be our middling protagonist Armin (Hans Löw), has mixed up his on and off buttons, leaving footage of a conference with all the meat missing. Just as a politician is about to speak, the image and sound cut out. “Good thing we didn’t miss that,” someone mistakenly says in the background. Too bad they did.

The film’s title (presented in English) likely references the Beach Boys’ 1963 song of the same name: “There’s a world where I can go/And tell my secrets to/In my room.” The use of the song title hints at the desire to press “pause” on life as we know it and simply exist — alone. A broke deadbeat with nothing left to lose, Armin finally has everything to gain when the world ends a third of the way through the film, leaving him seemingly alone on Earth.

As Armin roams around his desolate neighborhood in the wake of an unexplained and uneventful apocalypse (there’s no explosion, flood, or famine that we witness), he realizes that time has stopped only for him, and that humanity has vanished. While initially a bleak, hyper-realist look at this extreme scenario, Armin eventually realizes that the world is a blank page on which he can finally rewrite his own story.

In Alice Rohrwacher’s “Happy as Lazzaro,” which also screened at this year’s New York Film Festival, another young man is given a second chance at life, but this time within the framework of magical realism. The film opens in a bucolic Italian tobacco farm called Inviolata. With its old-world traditions and wardrobe that looks straight out of an Italian neorealist film, the village seems to firmly exist in pre-industrial times.

In reality, Inviolata has simply been purposely hidden away from the rest of the world and its movement towards modernity. The “Marquise” (Nicoletta Braschi) who runs the farm has kept her staff ignorant to life on the outside as indentured servants. Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is the personification of Inviolata — innocent, taken advantage of, purposely cut off from time. While all of the workers exist in a skewed version of reality, Lazzaro is perhaps one more layer removed, often found “staring into the void,” as his fellow workers call it. He usually requires some shaking to return back to Earth. So when, he’s inexplicably transported to present-day Italy following his seeming death without having aged at all, he brings a little bit of Inviolata with him.

The idea of stopping time has long interested artists, survivalists, and occultists. The popular 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode “Time Enough at Last” introduced the character of Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith), a bookworm bank-teller and lone survivor of an H-bomb explosion. His initial shock gives way to glee when he stumbles upon a library teeming with his favorite novels, only to be trumped by fate when his glasses break. Then there’s the possibility of jumping through time, as dramatized in Vincente Minnelli’s 1954 musical “Brigadoon,” in which Gene Kelly’s character stumbles upon a village in Scotland that preserves itself by only coming alive once every 100 years. He attempts to stay, enchanted by its pastoral ways.

Beyond the ethical and scientific considerations, on the individual level, it’s tempting for one imagine how we’d fare in another era. For Armin and Lazzaro, two characters who seem out of step with their own generations, this is particularly compelling. What might be considered failings in one world could be construed as successes in another. Being anachronistic has its benefits if time is no longer an issue.

So is there a reason that Lazzaro and Armin are singled out? In the harsh reality that Köhler presents, Armin could be anyone — there’s no grand design. As Köhler stated in his 2007 essay for the German site new filmkritik, “Why I Don’t Make Political Films,” he would never ask his audience to unearth any meaning behind his choice to illustrate a particular fate for his characters. To do so would “[ask] too much of the arts and underestimate the intelligence of its citizens.” Armin wasn’t left alive to save the world, but he thrives in his new digs, starting a farm, building a home, and adopting a taut physique that makes him look like an Adam happy in his own Eden.

What accounts for Lazzaro’s temporal shift is not made entirely clear, though a voiceover compares him to a saint (presumably Francis) who’s spared by a wolf who senses the “smell of a good man.” Whether or not Lazzaro is a holy presence, he brings a youthful spirit to several of Inviolata’s former inhabitants, now petty thieves living in the city years after the Marquise and her tobacco farm were taken down by authorities at some point in the interim.

They embrace Lazzaro, longing for the time when they were exploited but relatively safe. Back then, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), the son of the Marquise, so longed to be a part of Lazzaro’s simple world that he faked his own kidnapping to escape his bourgeois upbringing. At one point he beckons Lazzaro into a rocky clearing in Inviolata. Lazzaro doesn’t see the allure. “It’s a ditch,” he says. “It looks like the moon,” Tancredi replies.

Throughout their adventures, neither Armin nor Lazzaro question the fact that they’re living on borrowed time. The undertone that this may all be too good to be true starts to creep in toward the ends of each film, however, and our heroes’ seeming omnipotence begins to wane.

There’s something cathartic about watching each of these young men triumph over chronology, though, even briefly. Their accidental turns as intrepid time-travelers let us live out our fantasies of being that one person who lucks out and never has to grow up. It’s what we’re looking for when we shut the world out in our rooms, or when we enter a movie theater for a 90-minute reprieve from day-to-day life. But before we know it, we have to venture back out and reckon with reality. In the end, time catches up with us all.

Netflix will release “Happy as Lazzaro” on November 30.

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