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Cinema: Perky Picaro

3 minute read

Lazarillo. It can hardly be called a novel: its title, La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus for tunas y adversidades, is almost as long as the shortest of its seven short chapters. And nobody knows who wrote it: the author modestly preferred anonymity to martyrdom. Nevertheless, Lazarillo made a decisive impact on European life and letters. Published in 1554, it was greeted with a loud ole! in

Spain and then rapidly reprinted all over the Continent. Readers rich and poor were troubled by the author’s smiling horror of Renaissance society, but they were also tickled by the scarum scrapes and earthy humor of his hero, a perky little picaro (scalawag) who became the Huck Finn of his century. Aleman, Cervantes, Lesage, Defoe and Fielding were inspired to imitation, and today Lazarillo is acclaimed as the prototype of the picaresque novel, as a handsel of the arriving era of realism in European literature.

The book has now been made into a charming film, written and directed by Spain’s Cesar Ardavin, that makes a pretty point: the only difference between boys in the 16th century and boys in the 20th century is that they are bothered by a different set of adults.

Lazarillo (Marco Paoletti) begins life under a dark cloud: his impoverished mother sends him off with a blind beggar who promises to teach him the ways of the world. First lesson: the beggar tells Lazarillo to put his ear to a stone sculpture of a bull and listen: “You will hear a great noise inside it.” When Lazarillo gullibly does as he is told, the beggar slams his soft young head against the hard stone. He knocks more sense into the boy than he intended to. At the first chance, Lazarillo slyly stands the old blind brute in front of a stone column, tells him he is standing at the edge of a narrow brook.

“Jump!” he hollers. The beggar jumps, crashes into the column, falls down with a fractured skull.

Lazarillo moves on to other masters, among them one of the most appealing creatures of the Spanish imagination, a knight-aberrant who is obviously a direct literary ancestor of Don Quixote. The dear fellow is a physical coward who runs at the first hint of a fight, but later, safe in his bedroom, rips out his rapier and slaughters imaginary myriads. He is so poor he seldom eats more than twice a week—in one hilarious frame the camera wistfully observes that his chamber pot is filled with cobwebs. But he is proud. Whenever he leaves the house, he picks his teeth and smacks his lips, as though he had just finished a hearty meal. And one day he announces grandly: “In Old Castile I own a pigeon cote which if it were not in ruins would hold 200 pigeons if I had pigeons.”

Lazarillo’s last master, as far as the film is concerned, is a mountebank who dresses as a priest and then goes plodding about the boondocks, babbling dog Latin and dispensing illicit indulgences for the sins of an apparently endless supply of village idiots. In his new employment, Lazarillo frequently suffers pangs of conscience, but he seldom suffers pangs of hunger; and in the last reel he regretfully decides that, the world being what it is, survival depends less on nourishing the soul than on feeding the face.

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