At the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 5 Apr

There’s a tendency to romanticise the past and look upon yesteryear with the rose-tinted gaze of nostalgia, especially in a rural setting and even more so on the silver screen. Alice Rohrwacher’s beguiling third feature debunks such misty-eyed notions even as it reinforces them, creating a stunningly beautiful film that gives the viewer plenty to marvel at and mull over long after the final curtain has fallen.

The story concentrates on the titular Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a starry-eyed youth at the bottom of the food chain on the remote Italian tobacco plantation upon which he toils. His co-workers are being exploited by the unscrupulous marchesa (Nicoletta Braschi), a cigarette baroness who has neglected to tell her serfs that serfdom was outlawed decades ago. They, in turn, exploit Lazzaro, taking advantage of his good nature to get him to do all kinds of menial tasks and chores in a cynical cycle of dark human nature that the marchesa describes as “a chain reaction” which “can’t be stopped”.

But stopped it is thanks to the marchesa’s toerag of a son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani). Equally as manipulative as his mother, Tancredi ropes Lazzaro into a half-baked kidnapping plot designed to access his mother’s fortune, but only succeeds in bringing her crumbling empire down around her ears. As the police cotton on to her illicit scheme, everybody’s way of life is changed forever.

There are a handful of hints at magical realism in the first two acts of the film, but these blossom from the far-fetched into the downright fantastical as Tancredi’s scheme unravels. What follows is a confusing but exhilarating mix of social satire, religious parable and dreamlike fairy-tale, so drenched in symbolism as to make it difficult to know where to begin unpicking its true meaning.

There’s much to like about Happy as Lazzaro, not least the ethereal quality of its storyline and impeccable performances across the board. Those fond of seeking out and attempting to solve narrative puzzles will also find plenty to keep them occupied, but the stultified pacing and outlandish premise of the second half does have a tendency to overreach itself, meaning that the movie drags a little towards its slightly predictable conclusion. Nonetheless, it’s a gem of a film for anyone who has the patience to invest in it and the curiosity to investigate its mysteries.