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Allegories of Primitive Accumulation: On ‘Lazzaro Felice’

By Virginia Lee and Suvij Sudershan 

“At least half of the art of storytelling,” Walter Benjamin says, “consists in keeping one’s tale free of explanation.” Alice Rohrwacher’s film Lazzaro Felice (2019, trans. Happy as Lazzaro) follows this precept by telling a story whose inexplicability and fantasticness powerfully illustrate capitalist primitive accumulation. As Marx writes in Capital, much like “original sin in theology,” capitalist primitive accumulation refers to (among other elements) the originary and processual deprivation of the means of production owned by the peasant producers, in order to deprive them of any means of earning their sustenance apart from selling their labour-power in exchange for wages, and usually also entailing a movement from the countryside to the city.[1] Lazzaro Felice presents an allegorical vision of this process through the fantastical depiction of its setting and characters. The film is set in Inviolata, a perfect name for a village that has been isolated from all external life, except for the aristocrat, Marchioness Alfonsina De Luna, “Queen of Cigarettes,” who runs the tobacco farming operation in the village. Lazzaro, a rural boy who seemingly has no close ties among the villagers (thus indicating a kind of isolation in himself), is also the most hardworking of the peasants, performing errands all over Inviolata in addition to his farming labours. One day, the Marchioness and her truant son, Tancredi, arrive in the village. Tancredi begins to associate with Lazzaro, and, in order to communicate his dislike of his mother and take some of her money, concocts a plan for his own fake-kidnapping. Characteristically, this does not end well – the police are called, who arrive at the village in a helicopter. Gazing at this helicopter from the rugged hills near Inviolata, Lazzaro accidentally falls down a cliff, supposedly to his death. Meanwhile, Tancredi is “found,” unharmed, and the police, realizing the extreme isolation the villagers have been kept in, immediately identify their situation as one of bonded sharecropping, and force them to leave the village and seek a new life in the city. But then, despite the passage of decades, one day Lazzaro wakes up, unaffected by time. He leaves the village in search of his companions and arrives at the city, only to find them much older and unemployed, somehow scraping together an existence through petty crimes. The rest of the movie depicts Lazzaro’s entanglements with city life and his search for Tancredi, until he is eventually murdered in a bank.

Writing in The Origins of the German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin ascribes a specific kind of power to the allegorist – in the case of this movie, the director Alice Rohrwacher who structures the allegory, as well as the viewers who are invited into this realm of interconnected symbolic knowledge. Per Benjamin, allegory is a narrative schema which reveals “something other” about the elements within it; it reconstitutes these elements through the narrative as emblems for a “hidden knowledge.” Lazzaro Felice makes meaning via a nested pair of allegories, each with their own emblematic knowledge, as a way to refamiliarize the viewer with our own historical position, and the transition to capitalism that brought us here. The emblem of the first allegorical tier is the village Inviolata and its residents, who provide the “allegorist” with a way of knowing the capitalist transition, i.e. it has an epistemological quality. The emblem of the second allegorical tier is the characterization of Lazzaro himself which, in addition to rendering this capitalist transition into an object of knowledge, also has an ontological quality. Lazzaro is the emblem whose fantastical subjective experience makes emotionally resonant what Inviolata undergoes – the objective conditions that transport them spatiotemporally from the feudal village to the capitalist city.

Since the first allegorical tier is that of the village, Inviolata, and its residents, we will begin our examination from this point. Narrativizations of isolated communities forced into an encounter with mainstream society are a staple of cultural works that seek to provide a peripheral view of a major historical event, such as the Sicilian bourgeois-aristocratic perspective on the Italian Unification in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958). The secludedness of the village itself lends a fairy-tale-like quality to the movie, which contributes to a deep sense of foreboding about an incoming rupture that would break the seemingly idyllic veneer of this rural life. This veneer of idyll also sits uneasily with the fact that the peasants seem obliquely conscious of their oppression, as well as of the possibility of a different life outside of the village, even though they lack awareness of what this life might be. This idyll is based in the fact that the village’s entire socio-economic existence is mediated by the Marchioness De Luna. The Marchioness creates a semi-permeable boundary around the village, so that commodities can move to-and-from Inviolata, but the labour-power remains her captive. The villagers’ captivity and their quasi-feudal and bonded nature are apparent when the newly-married youths Mariagrazia and Giuseppe, announce their desire to leave the village “to see if the city is any better,” but are held back because Nicola, the Marchioness’ foreman, tells them that they require her permission in order to leave. In another instance, a peasant says that they “belong to the Marchese De Luna,” indicating the Marchioness’ total control over the village economy.

Clearly, the peasants seem to think that sharecropping is the generalized state of affairs in the Italian countryside, which is why they take no umbrage at their coerced and trapped existence. This confinement indicates that the residents of Inviolata never experienced crucial historical events, specifically, the struggles and victories of fellow mezzadri – those who lived and worked under the mezzadria sharecropping system. The outmodedness of the feudalistic sharecropping economy is made evident to the viewers through the disjunction between the self-perception of these peasants and the technological advancements around them. For instance, when the viewer sees Tancredi’s walkman, which is furthermore playing a mid-1990’s song, they are invited to reflect upon the world that such music and technology would belong to, as well as to note its discordant presence in a society of bonded labourers.

However, despite their removal from scenes of worker-peasant resistance, the residents of Inviolata still voice their dissatisfaction with their economic exploitation, indicating their knowledge of it. The way in which they do so has a fantastical quality, a mixture of frank admissions of their frustrations, and a more coded language of commiseration. In a crucial scene when Nicola the foreman is preparing the ledgers detailing the value of the products made by the villagers, and deciding upon their remuneration, he begins to extol the virtues of rural life. As the Marchioness’ foreman, he has a strong interest in preserving the bondage of these workers, and so, he presents a fetishized image of rural life to the villagers themselves, impressing upon them the decadence of the city and the purity of the countryside and its goods. However, the villagers are conscious of Nicola’s act of dupery as he paints a picture of their good fortune; instead, they call Nicola out the moment he tells them they, unlike city-dwellers, have “proper wine, proper bread,” reprimanding him by asking if “That was why [he] snatch[ed] real bread out of [their] mouths.” Still, he persists in his attempts at (false) camaraderie, by inciting them to reveal the coded manner in which the villagers caricature the Marchioness – by calling her the poison viper.

This coded, folkloric image of the viper is a part of a larger allegorical system that, once again, betrays the knowledge the villagers have of both their exploitation and their entrapment by the Marchioness. After a hard day of threshing hay, the workers are relaxing, when one of them puts up a sort of performance-play, intoning, in a folk-like, theatrical manner:

Did you really believe, oh, poison viper impure that I could not get the antidote? I have always managed to find the cure in the hair of the dog that bit me! What you throw at me is bullshit pure, you hope that your veil won’t let me see that your talent does not linger and all that you have slips through your fingers.

These words indicate the villagers’ knowledge of all aspects of their entrapment, including even the “veil” which the Marchioness holds tightly around Inviolata by prohibiting them from having any contact with the modern world outside of it. Crucially, the workers respond to this performance voicelessly, through a peculiar type of sound, somewhere between a whooshing breeze, a whistle, and an extended exhalation. This sound crops up at other points in the movie to indicate the togetherness of these rural workers, as well as their unity against forces of evil. For instance, when Tancredi, in all his pseudo-aristocratic arrogance, first makes an appearance to the villagers, they seem to repeatedly make this sound when he is not facing them, only to stop doing so the moment he turns around at them to investigate its source. This both unsettles Tancredi as well as shows the villagers actively manipulating him through a threatening, yet undecipherable, united front. In these ways, while these workers may not be conscious of their exploitation as a general social class, they are still cognizant of the power dynamics between their landlord-capitalist exploiters and their own feudal socio-economic life.

In the depiction of an “untouched” feudal existence, which is then forcefully wrenched into history through the intrusion of state institutions, the viewer is made to notice how “the economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic nature of feudal society.” As described above, when the modern capitalist state intrudes upon the isolated village, at that moment, the two tiers of allegory are brought into being and become evident. The villagers become emblematic of the process of the capitalist transition, while Lazzaro acquires a symbolic meaning for the predicaments that the villagers themselves undergo in this transition. While this encounter brings the villagers out of their rural seclusion, it consigns them to an even deeper isolation, in addition to unemployment, within the urban realm – and it is this isolation and economic failure to which Lazzaro’s comatose slumber, as well as his eventual murder in a bank, speak to. In effect, Lazzaro’s lack of consciousness in the moments when Inviolata’s residents are moved from the village to the city communicates the historical lack of agency experienced by feudal peasants as they were shepherded into the capitalist epoch. As Marx says, the “emancipation” of “agricultural producers” from “serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds,” also coexists with the fact that “these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements.” The seemingly instantaneous “transition” to capitalism that Lazzaro experiences upon waking up decades later jarringly conveys the unfamiliarity of this new economic system, and the supposed “transformation” of the producer into the waged-worker.

The state/ government plays a crucial role in Marx’s elaboration of the process of capitalist primitive accumulation. Lazzaro Felice faithfully depicts the state’s role by capturing its pretensions of acting as a “great liberator,” rescuing the villagers and delivering them into modernity. The state enters this village when, due to Tancredi’s “disappearance,” the foreman Nicola’s daughter, Teresa, calls the police to investigate. The manner in which this movie frames the police’s entrance is significant. Once the police are called in, the film suddenly switches to aerial shots, which are in themselves a novelty within the aesthetic schema of this film, since this entire tracking sequence is not shot in the 16mm format previously used to film the village. Framing the village from above (in what is possibly a drone shot), the shot itself brings in the formally hyper-contemporary quality of state surveillance into this isolated rural realm that we have assumed to be secluded in both space and time from such forces. While it is implied that this movement belongs to a helicopter, the only indication of its presence, initially, is given to us through the reactions that Tancredi, Nicola, Lazzaro, and other villagers have upon seeing it – shock and awe. In addition, the sound that accompanies this helicopter is not that of its heavy blades, but rather an ambient, quiet yet onerous wind-like sound, which evokes a sense of trepidation about what is to come, and what change it will bring. After landing, a bewildered police officer speaks to some of the villagers, who identify themselves as “sharecroppers” belonging to the Marchioness De Luna. When he asks them about the education of the village children, they respond, to his shock, that schools were only for rich people. This benevolent figure of the state then somehow manages to convince the villagers to cross the dried-up riverbed that separates Inviolata from the outside world, which the villagers are very hesitant to do. With this act, however, their fates are sealed forever, and their march towards becoming unemployed urban proletarians, the reserve army of labour, begins.

Throughout these sequences, Lazzaro’s character, as mentioned above, embodies and allegorically represents an ontological vision of the villagers’ departure. As he sights the helicopter, he is thrown into the further isolation which is his death-like slumber, rendering him into a picture of a dissociated rural life as it is forced into the urban strictures of capitalism. The suddenness of his “death” stands in for the loss of all that is familiar in the feudal arrangement that the villagers of Inviolata live through, and are forced out of. This is further evoked through the voiceover interspersed amongst these scenes of capitalist transition – that of one of the villagers, Antonia, narrating a fable to her son Pippo as they are driven by bus out of Inviolata. The fable bears a resemblance to the story of “St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio” from The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, even as it deviates from the latter by excising the elements of a brokered peace between the villagers and the wolf that terrifies them. In Antonia’s story the wolf is reappropriated in such a way that it becomes an allegorical commentary on the older Christian fable. The vital and powerful wolf of the older story, which was brought into a negotiated settlement with the villagers, is now reduced to a petty thief. Antonia’s fable then retroactively constitutes “The Wolf of Gubbio” as an allegory of a thriving feudal society, since the wolf in her tale is old and decrepit, having been abandoned by his pack because of his inability to hunt “wild animals.” The peace which marked the exchange of goods by the villagers for the wolf’s promise to do no harm is not an element in this fable, and the outmodedness of the wolf, rejected by his pack, conjures the very situation of the feudal arrangements of Inviolata, an uncanny and lonely beast in the midst of late-twentieth century capitalism. In effect, its emphasis is on creating a resonance between Lazzaro and the figure of St. Francis, both of which are taken to embody exceptional good, a good that even this much-reduced figure of the wolf recognizes. At the same time, Lazzaro is aligned with the figure of the wolf itself, specifically in the final moments of the film, when, as he is murdered by an angry mob at a bank in the city, a timid wolf seems to take his place. This taps into the theme of Lazzaro’s saintly martyrdom, a motif throughout the movie which embodies a sense of his, and Inviolata’s, lack of socio-historical cohesion with the times they live in.

The capitalist state which is the cause of this rupture can only effect an incomplete and violent transition into modernity for the villagers. This becomes evident when Lazzaro awakens and gets to the city (or rather its fringes), and we encounter the former villagers, now reduced to petty crimes to get by, squatting in a water tank by the train tracks. While this in itself indicates, for these villagers, the failure of the state to provide them with a meaningful economic life, it is definitely a thumping success for the industrialists themselves, for whom these lives are simply quantum that can, in their role as the reserve army of labour, bring down the price of labour-power. Thus, the villagers are caught in a limbo, not fully integrated into the urban, but simultaneously contemptuous of the rural, as reflected in the statements by some of the older ex-villagers to never work the earth again. The only way to survive available to these displaced villagers is through an informal market of stolen goods, specifically by scamming people using an antique cigarette carousel which they stole from the abandoned De Luna mansion. Not only is this commodity a product of their own congealed labour-power, but it also has to be sold by the villagers in a manner that highlights the fetishistic nature of its production. The fact of Inviolata’s exploitation by the Marchioness was a well-publicised scandal, printed in all the newspapers as “The Great Swindle” (“La Grande Truffa”), and this renders the cigarette carousel into a charged signifier of this exploitation, a curio, to modern urban subjects, of feudal bonded labour.

Lazzaro’s murder in the bank, in the final moments of the film, is a culmination of his enlistment by Tancredi to the latter’s purposes, even as the circumstances spawned by their alliance ultimately lead to the mutual destruction of the social classes that the two men stand in for. Back in Inviolata, to bind him to secrecy in the conspiracy of his kidnapping, Tancredi had used the language of chivalric fraternity, using quotes from Ariosto’s Italian epic Orlando Furioso to paint him and Lazzaro as “cavaliers of old … to different faiths bred … yet they together ride by waste and wold.” In the same vein, Tancredi “knights” Lazzaro with a slingshot, and keeping up the pretence of it being a sword, bestows this weapon upon him. More prosaically, Tancredi later also tells Lazzaro (whose parentage is unknown) that they might quite literally be half-brothers by way of a womanising father. Of course, this plan goes awry, and the police are called in, leading to the discovery of bonded servitude in the village. However, when Lazzaro finds the now-destitute Tancredi in the city, the latter once again brings up this chivalric tie between them, at one point calling him “chevalier,” and at another point asking him to “draw his weapon.” So, when Lazzaro finds out that the source of Tancredi’s poverty is the bank, which had repossessed all the De Luna wealth, he is “called to arms” by the strength of this chivalric ideological code. Thus, Lazzaro goes to a bank, and demands that they return the De Luna wealth to Tancredi, his half-brother; however, someone spots the outline of a “weapon” in his pocket, in turn leading to the bank’s clients and staff assuming that he was robbing it. So affected is Lazzaro by this myth, and so unaware of the implications of wielding a “weapon” in a bank, that he openly and frankly admits that yes, he did indeed have a weapon. The bystanders assume that this weapon is a gun, and when Lazzaro is unprepared, they pounce upon him, and begin to beat him up. Even after they realise that all he had was a decades-old slingshot, they keep hitting him, ultimately leading to his death.

Lazzarro’s solitary death in a financial institution, brought upon by this feudal kinship, harkens back to his allegorical role. It is Lazzaro’s figuration as a pure isolate of the feudal arrangement that renders him so exposed to the violence of capitalism, his complete inability to move past this feudality and negotiate with its arrangements, to allowing himself to be adapted and restructured by capitalist modernity. In this, he is opposed to his village family who have all adapted (even if only marginally) to urban life. As he dies inside the bank, the wolf, which had appeared at Lazzaro’s resurrection (the moment of transition) shows up again. As the film ends, the two are no longer distinct beings, but a phantasmagorical unity, and the canine escapes from the bank to rove the cityscape.

[1] For detailed discussions of the continuing prevalence of primitive accumulation in the growth of capitalism, see Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e); distributed by MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2018); Utsa Patnaik and Sam Moyo, The Agrarian Question in the Neoliberal Era: Primitive Accumulation and the Peasantry (Tanzania, Pambazuka Press, 2011); Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Tony C. Brown, “The Time of Globalization: Rethinking Primitive Accumulation,” Rethinking Marxism 21, no. 4 (2009): 571-584; “Indigeneity, Liberation, Resistance, Coalition: The Red Nation Manifesto,” The Red Nation, accessed January 31, 2022

Virginia Lee is a visual artist located in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. She studied Anthropology at Concordia University, where she received her B.A. in 2021. Suvij Sudershan studied English Literature at McGill University, where he received his M.A. in 2020. His field of study is Comparative Literature, with a particular focus on the vernacular – Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali – and anglophone writings from 20th century South Asia.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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