Hungarian director László Nemes belongs to an exclusive club that also includes Serge Bourguignon (Sundays and Cybele, 1962), Jirí Menzel (Closely Observed Trains, 1966), Jean-Jacques Annaud (Black and White in Colour, 1976), Richard Dembo (Dangerous Moves, 1984), Danis Tanovic (No Man's Land, 2001) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others, 2006). All seven won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film with their debut features. Matching the intensity, sincerity and innovation of the 2015 Holocaust drama, Son of Saul, was always going to represent a considerable challenge. But, while many critics have been underwhelmed by Sunset, Nemes is to be commended for attempting such a boldly enigmatic narrative and for filming it in such an uncompromisingly distinctive manner. 

Budapest 1913 and Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) causes something of a stir when she applies for a position as a milliner at the prestigious hat shop that had been founded by her parents, Róza and Leopold. Manageress Zelma (Evelin Dobos) is shocked to hear her surname and new owner Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) is intrigued that she has come all the way from Trieste, after she was adopted from an orphanage after her parents perished in a fire that had gutted the premises when she was two. Brill notes the family resemblance, as Írisz looks at the photographs he keeps in his quarters. But he regrets to inform her that he cannot offer her a position and Írisz leaves with nettled pride to find lodging at the old family home, which is now a dormitory for the milliners. 

Whispers swirl, as the caretaker (Mihály Kormos) shows Írisz to a room and makes it clear that she is not particularly welcome, even though she had been born here. He becomes grumpier when she is pestered in the night by Gáspár (Levente Molnár), a grizzled coachman who puzzles Írisz by mentioning the fact she has a brother before setting light to some curtains with his lantern after a struggle with the caretaker on the landing. The next morning, Brill arrives with a first-class train ticket and a promise that he will contact Írisz if a position ever arises. But she refuses to leave and pays a visit to the orphanage that had billeted her in Trieste, where she learns from Mrs Müller (Móni Balsai) that she has a sibling named Kálmán, who was somehow mixed up in the murder of Count Rédey. 

Determined to discover the truth, Írisz gatecrashes a garden party being thrown by Brill to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of Leiter's and he is left with little option but to introduce her to his guests. Among them is Countess Rédey (Julia Jakubowska), who is still grieving for her husband and strides up to Írisz to glare at her, as Brill prepares to launch a hot-air balloon bearing the company name. He explains that the Rédey incident blackened the Leiter name and, after Írisz is asked to help out during the anniversary rush, we hear shopgirls at the guest house gossiping about a brutal murder that the Countess had been forced to witness. When they leave to attend a dance, Írisz follows and is rescued from a lustful soldier by Sándor Jakab (Marcin Czarnik), who claims to have known her brother and urges her to leave because there will be bloodshed before the celebrations are over. However, Andór (Benjamin Dino), who does odd jobs at the shop insists that Kálman is a good man rescued him from the gutter and he hopes that Írisz brings him back to the shop, where he had worked before falling out with Brill. 

The next day, the Countess causes a scene at the shop and only calms down when Írisz serves her. Ducking out of a line-up assembled so that a courtier can select girls to meet the member of the Habsburg royal family who is due to visit the shop, Írisz takes a coach to the rundown Rédey estate. She finds the Countess with a drug pipe in her hand and asks her for information about her brother. However, they are interrupted by the arrival of Otto von König (Christian Harting), a Viennese bigwig who evidently knows and fears Kálmán and, while forcing his attentions upon her, he warns the Countess against stepping out of line. As she watches impassively, Írisz notices a small boy peering around the door to see why his mother is so distressed. But neither intervene, as Von König rapes the Countess as brutally as her husband had once done. 

On returning to Leiter, Írisz asks Andór if her brother had been trying to protect the Countess from her brutish spouse. He refuses to respond, however, and Írisz is whisked away by Brill to witness the opening of a room that has been sealing up since the Empress Elizabeth supposedly dropped a hatpin during a visit. Such is the regard in which `Sissi' is held that there are gasps of delight when the planking is ripped away and Brill escorts Írisz inside and orders her to restore the room so that it is fit for a princess. Once again, she decides she has better things to do and takes a tram to the end of the line in order to find Gáspár. A funeral is taking place and the rough residents of the encampment jostle Írisz, as she searches for the coachman. He rummages in his pockets for something a man at the shop had supposedly given him, but he is pushed away by his boss, who tells Írisz to sling her hook. As she leaves, she is set upon by a group of rapacious thugs and is lucky to be rescued by Sándor. She asks if he is Kálmán, but he shushes her, puts her in a coach and advises her never to return. 

Stopping the tram, giving minder Nulla (Balázs Czukor) the slip and hitching a lift with Gáspár, Írisz attends a soirée at the Countess's yellow villa. She looks on, as the hostess shows off her son's musical abilities and spots Von König by her side. Fearing that her brother is about to do something reckless, Írisz hastens up a staircase to see Kálmán attempt to murder Von König and accidentally shoot the Countess. As chaos breaks out and Kálmán's gang relieve the guests of the valuables, Írisz promises to fetch help for the wounded noblewoman. But she is bundled into a carriage by one of her brother's lieutenants and finds herself being rowed across the Danube to safety. Kálmán reveals that he plans to destroy the shop because Brill is little more than a glorified pimp who sells the milliners into sexual slavery. He was particularly close to a girl named Fanni Braun and he intends wreaking revenge on her behalf. 

Írisz protests that she barely knows him and is shocked when he slaps her face and orders her to stay put. At first light, however, she tries to escape and, when Sándor swims after her, she attacks him with the oar and his body floats away on the current. Rushing back to the shop, Írisz tells Brill what has happened and he sends Szilágyi (Zsolt Nagy) to investigate. She confesses that she should have heeded his warnings and Brill urges her to deny she was anywhere near the Countess's home. 

As preparations continue for the royal visit, Zelma remains cross with Írisz for putting Brill in danger, because Kálmán had once tried to kill him. Szeréna (Judit Bárdos) is also angry with Írisz for failing to help them tidy up Sissi's room and she is further admonished for venturing outside when the coach bearing the Prince (Tom Pilath) and the Princess (Susanne Wuest) arrives. However, Zelma ushers her indoors and Brill selects her to take the Princess's measurements for two new hats. She is distracted by the sound of an explosion in the courtyard, however, and turns from the scene of some misfiring fireworks to see the royal couple hurriedly take their leave. 

The milliners attend a Jubilee fair in the city and Írisz accompanies Lili (Dorottya Moldován) when she goes to see a Tarot reader. As she wanders through the tent, she thinks she sees Kálmán in a small group of men listening to a reading, but loses sight of him when the bright sunlight hits her eyes. Once again, Írisz is ticked off for straying from the others and they return to the shop, where Brill is having the girls fitted for new dresses. He insists that Zelma also gets a new gown, but tells Írisz that she will not be among those to be chosen, as he gives her a locket that had once belonged to her mother. 

Something about the rigmarole perplexes Írisz, especially when she learns that the chosen girl will return to Vienna with the royals. The old retainer fitting the dresses claims that the practice dates back to her mother's day and Írisz asks Andór if he knows what happened to Fanni Braun (Tamara Dózsa), who was the last girl to be selected. He refuses to answer, but is intrigued to hear that Írisz has seen Kálmán and he pleads with her to bring him back to the shop. 

Ignoring an order from Róbert (Péter Fancsikai) to stay in the workshop, Írisz goes in search of Fanni and sees her peering through a half-open door after hearing her signing. She returns to the shop, with her eyes burning with indignation sparked by what she has heard, and is set to work on the hats for the Princess. After her shift is over, however, Írisz asks Robert to escort her to The Sphinx at the end of the tramline and to row along the river in search of Sándor's body. There's no sign of him anywhere and Robert suggests she accepts the evidence of her own eyes. 

Back at the shop, Írisz confronts Nulla, who has been following her. She finds the milliners having supper in their white finery and Brill reassures her that she has nothing to fear from her brother or his gang. Lili appears agitated and Írisz asks if she knows what happens to the chosen girl. But she refuses to answer and denies being afraid, as Brill ushers his employees down the stairs. Naturally, Írisz follows and sees her co-workers dancing with various partners under the watchful gaze of a monocled man in white (Björn Freiberg). He comments on her plain blue dress and calls her by name in regretting that she cannot be chosen to go to Vienna. Instead, he cuts in on Zelma and Írisz asks one of Brill's sidekicks to take her home. 

Overhearing Zelma's reluctance to join the royals, Írisz grabs her hat and rushes down to the waiting landau. Andór looks askance, as she drives away, with the Leiter hat boxes beside her on the seat. On arriving at the royal residence, she is told to hand over her hat and remove her shoes. She is shown into the Prince's chamber, where he is being attended by the man in white and various other courtiers. They fawn over her, as she tries on the hats the Princess has commissioned. The Prince offers her a glass of water, but she can't bring herself to drink and bolts for the door. It opens to reveal Brill waiting for her and Zelma shoots her a look of disdain, as she removes her hat and passes into the Prince's quarters.

While returning to the shop, Brill curses Írisz for interfering and for going to see Fanni. He insists what happened to her was an accident and he denies that Zelma has gone with the royals against her will. Having been examined by Dr Herz (Sándor Zsótér) - who confides that Kálmán was pitched into the abyss because he discovered what his parents were up to - Írisz is locked in her room. But Andór knocks on her door to warn her that Kálmán's gang is coming to attack the shop and she dresses in her brother's old clothes (which she had found in a trunk) and clambers out of the window. 

Walking away unnoticed, she hears chatter about the shop, but strides on to The Sphinx club, where Kálmán's gang has assembled. Swept along by the rush of angry males, Írisz accepts a ride from Nulla and watches on as Leiter is set alight by the whooping mob. Seeking out Andór, she tells him he's been spared and urges him to flee. But Brill perishes and Írisz feels little pity when she sees his corpse. Removing her masculine attire, she disappears into the Budapest night. 

As the film ends, the camera weaves along a Great War trench. Austro-Hungarian troops prop themselves up against the parapet and try to keep their feet out of the standing water. For the first time, the depth of field is extended and objects in the middle and far distance are as clear as those in the foreground. Coming to a halt, the camera peers into the darkness of an enclave and a figure comes into the light. It's Írisz, who has disguised herself as a man to fight for the crumbling empire that had done so little to deserve her loyalty. 

While critics struggle to agree on the merits of this dramatically and aesthetically ambitious crinoline noir, it seems clear that Nemes has managed to use the reduced depth of field technique pioneered on Son of Saul in creating a broader canvas. Shooting on 35mm, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély spends much of his time following in the wake of Juli Jakab, with his lens trained on the nape of her neck rather than the people and things occupying the spaces into which she is moving. The visuals recall those employed by José Luis Guerin in In the City of Sylvia (2007), but we see a lot less of Budapest than we did of Strasbourg. Indeed, by shortening the perspective and casting much of the mise-en-scène into a stylised blur, Nemes ensures that we see less than his dangerously naive, but capriciously spirited heroine, as the traverses the Hungarian capital in search of the clues that will help her make sense of the various mysteries she has unearthed. 

For much of the time, the viewer gets to learn less than the protagonist, as Nemes and editor Mattieu Taponier (who co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Royer) end scenes before vital information is imparted and start others with close-ups of Jakab's face as she processes what she has just been told. This makes it tricky for those not paying full attention to piece the puzzle together. But Nemes drizzles telltale snippets and part of the film's pleasure lies in fathoming how characters from across the social spectrum fit into the grand design. Indeed, the 1913 feels apt, as Nemes's approach to storytelling resembles the episodic template concocted by French director Louis Feuillade in such serials as Fantômas. 

In fact, for all its twists and sinister overtones, the storyline isn't that compelling. But the piecemeal approach makes it seem more enigmatic than it is. In this regard, the picture recalls Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946), Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) and even Twin Peaks (1990-91) in connivingly seeking to keep the audience confused. The retail setting also evokes memories of Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940). But the fact that Nemes appears to be using this form of toxic nostalgia to comment on the prejudices on which Viktor Orbán has built his pernicious brand of populism also brings to mind Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (2009), which was also set in 1913 and conveys the air of a society dancing on the edge of a volcano. 

Although Erdély's immersive camerawork often obscures them, László Rajk's production design and Györgyi Szakács's costumes couldn't be better, while the ensemble playing recalls the exemplary precision of the cast in Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark (2002), as they hit their marks and deliver their lines with insouciant naturalism during the often lengthy takes. We should also mention the bookending shots. The opening vue d'optique shows the sun setting on a grand shop facade so that backlighting gives the appearance of fairy lights twinkling and windows glowing within the image. This harking back to the prehistory of cinema that was explored with such charm by Werner Nekes in Film Before Film (1986) contrasts with the 65mm dolly shot through the Great War trench that recalls the teasing modernism of Virginia Woolf's Orlando by showing Írisz in male attire, as she stands ready to confront the challenges that lie ahead. Her stare also fixes the gaze of the viewer, as if inquiring whether they have understood each nuance and allusion of her odyssey or whether they need to take a second look.

Having explored the lot of the migrant in his supernatural debut, Shelley (2016), Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi focuses on a customs officer in Border, a genre-bending hybrid adapted from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose novel, Let the Right One In, was filmed so evocatively by Tomas Alfredson in 2008. A trans subplot has aroused ire in certain quarters, but this blend of social critique, mythological horror and Nordic noir is on much safer ground in its exploration of otherness, conformity, duty and the crises facing human civilisation. 

With her Neanderthalic features, Tina (Eva Melander) stands out from her colleagues on the customs barrier at an unnamed Swedish port. As the passengers go by, she scents their fear and her colleagues have come to trust her instincts, as she stops an underage kid with a bagful of alcohol and a smug suit (Viktor Åkerblom) trying to smuggle child pornography into the country on a memory card hidden in his phone. 

Although she lives with Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), he is more interested in the three Dobermans he grooms for dog shows. So, as soon as she gets home, Tina wanders into the woods barefoot to commune with nature and escape from the sense of being different and alone. One day, however, she discovers she isn't quite as unique as she had thought, as Vore (Eero Milonoff) shares her facial features, although he also has a cockiness that makes her feel nervous while searching his bag. 

She doesn't mention the stranger when she visits her father (Sten Ljunggren) in his nursing home. He is suffering from dementia, but remembers disliking Roland and Tina is forced to defend him when she wheels him into the grounds for an illicit cigarette. She is embarrassed when he mentions the physical side of their relationship, but reflects on it when she wanders outside while Roland is watching buggy racing on the telly. As she stares in through the window of her own home, she feels like an outsider before she is consoled by a passing elk, which stands calmly beside her in the darkness - in contrast to the frantic barking of Roland's dogs whenever they see her. 

At work, Tina is asked about her powers by her boss, Agneta (Ann Petrén), who is convinced that the child porn smuggler is in direct contact with the people who produce the material and she asks Tina if she would be willing to help with her investigation. Returning home that night, Tina goes skinny-dipping in the lake, as though she is trying to wash off the contamination of contact with such a depraved world. 

She can't stop thinking about Vore and has him cavity searched when he next comes through customs. Tina is taken aback when Tomas (Matti Boustedt) informs her that Vore has female genitalia and she wonders aloud if she has had a sex change operation. However, she is intrigued when Tomas mentions a scar on Vore's lower spine, as she has one exactly the same. She apologies to Vore for having put her through such a humiliating ordeal, but she shrugs it off and reveals that she is so used to being treated differently that she now moves around all the time to avoid the fuss. 

When she next visits her father, Tina asks about her own scar and he insists that she cut herself when she was three years old and needed stitches to close the wound. But Tina is sceptical and is driving home in the dark when she is flagged down by her neighbour, Stefan (Tomas Åhnstrand), who needs a lift  because his wife, Esther (Josefin Neldén), has gone into labour. As she speeds along, she suddenly picks up a scent and slows down to allow some deer to cross the road. Her passengers are astonished by her gift, but barely manage to thank her before dashing off into the hospital. On arriving home, Roland tries to coerce her into having sex and she pushes him off the bed. When she looks up at the window, however, she sees a fox checking up on her and she giggles when it tries to lick her fingers through the glass. 

Feeling drawn to Vore, Tina drops round to the hostel where he is staying and finds him collecting maggots off a tree. He urges her to taste one and she does so with bashful reluctance. When she asks how he is enjoying his stay, he says the surroundings are gloomy. So, she offers him her guest cottage and Tina is amused when Vore silences the barking dogs with a gutteral growl of his own. Roland is also uneasy at meeting the newcomer and is cross with Tina for not consulting him, even though he is more of a freeloading tenant than a partner. 

Agneta teams Tina with cop Daniel (Kjell Wilhelmsen) and asks her to use her senses to assess those visiting an address identified from the porn smuggler's phone. She is convinced that a cyclist smells of shame and follows him to his apartment, only for Daniel to have to make excuses for her when she is caught sniffing through the letterbox. However, he confirms to Agneta that he also heard a baby crying, even though no newborns have been registered to that household. 

Wandering in the woods to relax, Tina runs into Vore by a waterfall. Vore claims it looks like something out of a fairytale, but Tina says she doesn't believe in such things, even though she had always felt special as a girl before she was told how different she was. She blushes when Vore spots the lightning scar on her forehead and insists that humans are too stupid to recognise true beauty and she feels accepted when Vore shrugs off the fact that she can't bear children because of her distinctive genitalia. Tina introduces Vore to Esther and Stefan and is pleased by how cool they are about Vore being around their baby. That night, however, Vore appears to experience labour pangs in the depths of the forest. 

Tina and Daniel wait until Patrick (Henrik Johansson) and Therese (Rakel Wärmländer) go out to a bar and break into their apartment. She finds a camcorder hidden in a silver trophy in their bedroom and Agneta interrogates him about the sordid images it contains. But he denies everything, even though his fingerprints and DNA have been found on the camera. 

When Roland takes the dogs to a show, Tina can barely suppress a smile because she knows she will be alone with Vore. They shelter under the kitchen table together during an electrical storm and venture into the woods to make love. Much to Tina's surprise, she sprouts a penis and emits feral grunts as she mounts Vore. As they lie together, he reveals that they are trolls and that the scar on her back was caused when she had her tail removed. Excited to have discovered the truth about herself, Tina joins Vore in running naked through the trees and bathing in the lake. 

During another late-night tryst, Vore tells Tina that humans are parasites who abuse the Earth. She tries to defend her father, but Vore insists that he has been telling her lies her whole life because she will have been separated from her troll parents so that they could be experimented on. Feeling betrayed, Tina confronts her father, but he refuses to speak to her. She also turfs Roland and his dogs out of the house. But Vore warns her that the troll life is not an easy one and her confidence is shaken when she creeps into the cottage and finds a `hiisit' (or unfertilised egg) in a cardboard box in the gaffer-taped fridge. 

When Patrick is killed in an ambush on his way to prison, Tina picks up Vore's scent and is appalled to discover that Vore is part of the paedophile ring because humans deserve to be punished for the way they have treated trolls. Back at the cottage, Vore feeds the hiisit and explains that it's not an infant in the human sense. But Tina is enraged when Vore admits to kidnapping and selling babies and she snarls in confusion and betrayal before walking away. However, she knows she has to act when Vore steals Esther and Stefan's child and leaves the hiisit in its place. Vore has left a note to meet on the ferry and she declines the invitation to run away together and start a family. She claims not to understand Vore's need to be evil and stands aside as the police close in. But Vore has no intention of being detained and jumps over the side of the boat. 

A few days later, Tina's father comes to the house to explain that he used to be the caretaker at the psychiatric hospital where trolls were kept. He had offered to take care of her after her parents died and tries to apologise for withholding the truth and not doing more to protect her from the taunts she has endured her whole life. She asks if she had a troll name and he reveals that she was called Reva. Having visited the cemetery at the back of the hospital, Tina tries to pick up the threads of her life. However, when she returns from foraging in the woods, she finds a box on the door containing a troll baby and a postcard from Finland (where Vore had claimed a community of trolls lives freely). Unsure what to do with the child, Tina feeds it a spider and feels a surge of affection when it stops crying and looks up at her with a smile. 

Audacious in terms of its concept and content, this may not make for comfortable viewing. But Abi Abbasi challenges the viewer to draw parallels between the mythical and the millennial, as he and co-writers John Ajvide Lindqvist and Isabella Eklöf contemplate how the planet's other occupants might exact their revenge on humanity for its deplorable stewardship of the precious resources vital for life. This is no preachy eco parable. however, as Abbasi blends folkloric, police procedural, dysfunctional domestic and doomed romantic elements to create a saga that plays as much on the imagination as it does on the conscience. 

Unrecognisable under the Oscar-nominated make-up that took Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer four hours to apply each day, Eva Melander gives a wondrous performance as the border guard trapped between her human and troll natures. Making more expressive use of her eyes than Eero Milonoff as the less acclimatised Vore, Melander bears the burden of her alienation on her stooped shoulders, as people stare in supermarkets and she is treated as sub-canine by the shoddily exploitative Jörgen Thorsson, who makes no attempt to hide the fact he is talking to his lover when Melander is within earshot. Yet, such is the dignity of her demeanour and the potency of the being that is awakened within her that Tina never feels pitiable and it's tempting to suggest that Abbasi has invested her with some of his own sense of émigré (if not to say, X-Men) tenacity and self-worth.

The abduction-molestation plotline strains credibility in places, with the birth of a baby in the remote neighbourhood feeling overly convenient. The climactic parcel delivery also seems specious, as surely someone handling the box would have heard the gurgling noises coming from inside. But when did fairytales have to stick by the rules of social realist fiction, especially when they are told with such deceptive humour and humanity? All that matters is that the performances compel, while Frida Hoas's production design, Nadim Carlsen's camerawork, Christian Holm's sound scheme and Peter Hjorth's visual effects lure the audience into a woodland realm in which anything might happen. Abbasi won the Best Director prize at Cannes's Un Certain Regard and it will be fascinating to see what he devises next.

Having already impressed with Corpo Celeste (2011) and The Wonders (2014), Italian auteur Alice Rohrwacher establishes herself as one of Europe's most thematically thoughtful and stylistically audacious directors with Happy As Lazzaro. Starting out as a rustic fable akin to those made by the Taviani brothers and Ermanno Olmi, the action takes a dramatic turn with a shift of tone and location that may some may find a touch self-consciously contrived. But, by switching to an urban setting and ditching cod anachronism for gritty authenticity, Rohrwacher invokes the spirits of Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini in order to comment on the social, economic and political fortunes of a country that sometimes seems to be caught in a time warp. 

As Giuseppe (Nicola Sorci) comes by moonlight to serenade Mariagrazia (Sofia Stangherlin) in the remote village of Inviolata, it seems as though little has changed since the late 19th-century days of Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). The hesitant song is accompanied by bagpipes and the happy couple are toasted with masala and biscuits. However, they announce that they plan to relocate to the city after their marriage, as picking tobacco as sharecroppers simply doesn't appeal. When a hen waddles into the kitchen, Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) takes it back to the coop and is persuaded to takeover from the watchman looking out for the wolf prowling the hills. 

The next morning, estate agent Nicola (Natalino Balasso) arrives with local priest Don Severino (Marco Donno) to replenish supplies and to bless the workers in their endeavours. Praising the quality of their wine, Nicola jokes with the residents about their nickname (`the Poison Viper') for Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi). But he warns them that they need to tidy up the place before her next visit and scolds them for allowing the wolf to eat the capons, as this makes them more indebted to the Marchesa than ever before. Moreover, he refuses to allow Giuseppe and Mariagrazia to leave without her express permission. 

The mischievous Pippo (Edoardo Montalto) steals the mirror off Nicola's mobylette and he rides away through the parched hillside to the basket lift that lowers visitors to the bridge over a shallow stream that separates Inviolata from the rest of the world. He watches as Lazzaro unloads the crates of tobacco leaves and gives him a packet of coffee as a reward. However, when he shows this to Antonia (Agnese Graziani) and the other girls, they tease him and claim that none of the village girls would ever want anything to do with him. 

When Marchesa Alfonsina rolls up in her car with her brattish son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), it's clear that the outside world is nowhere near as backward as Inviolata, as he has a flip phone and complains that he can't get a signal. Antonia has tidied up the villa that towers over the village and shows Lazzaro the holy pictures she has secreted in the various rooms. When the Marchesa ticks her off for serving from the wrong side at lunch, Antonia's siblings, Pippo and Stefania (Maddalena Baiocco), spit on the desert. 

While searching for his lapdog, Ercole, the bleach-blonde Tancredi runs into Lazzaro, who offers to make him coffee in the cave hideaway he uses when tending the sheep. His eager generosity intrigues Tancredi, who asks his mother what she will do when the villagers realise that they are being kept in form of servitude that has long been outlawed. She says they would be worse off if they were free and accuses them of being every bit as exploitative as she is because they treat the willing Lazzaro like a servant. Nevertheless, she has chairs brought out so that she and Nicola's spoilt daughter, Teresa (Giulia Caccavello), can watch the villagers threshing.

When dusk descends, Nicola notices that Tancredi has disappeared and Teresa orders the locals to search for him. When there's still no sign of him next morning, Lazzaro goes to the eyrie, where Tancredi informs him that they are co-conspirators in a kidnapping plot to get some money out of his mother. He wants to sign the ransom note in his own blood, but it too squeamish and Lazzaro readily cuts the tip of his own finger to provide a smudge. When he returns to tell Tancredi that the missive has been found (and dismissed as just another prank by the Marchesa), he is told that they are very likely half-brothers, as Tancredi's father was a womaniser who probably seduced his mother while she was washing clothes in the river. 

Impassive as ever, Lazzaro weighs up the idea, as they walk along a dried-out ditch. In joining Tancredi in making wolf howls, however, he neglects his chores and is reprimanded by the menfolk for slacking. Yet, when he tells Tancredi that he has to work, Lazzaro is accused of being a bad friend and he becomes so confused over what to do for the best that he contracts a fever after standing out in the rain. Waking in a panic that he has not taken Tancredi any food, Lazzaro sets out for the hideout. However, the young marquis has already started to panic and, realisng he has a phone signal, he calls Teresa and pretends he is under duress and needs his mother to pay the ransom as soon as possible. But Teresa decides to call the police and, in looking up at the helicopter flying overhead, Lazzaro loses his footing and tumbles over a ledge. 

Arriving in Inviolata, the district police chief is appalled to discover that the occupants have been tricked into believing that they are still serfs, as they have no idea that sharecropping has been outlawed because the village has been cut off since the bridge collapsed during a flood in the 1970s. He has trouble persuading them to cross the shallow beck and board a bus so that they can be registered and rehoused. But, only Antonia seems concerned about the whereabouts of Lazzaro, whose body is found by the prowling wolf. As we hear a story being related on the soundtrack about a wolf refusing to devour the body of a good mn, Lazzaro comes round and wanders home. 

On finding no one around, he climbs through an open window at the villa and seems nonplussed that it has fallen into a state of disrepair and is being burgled by Ultimo (Sergi López) and Pippo (Carlo Massimino). Recognising that Lazzaro doesn't pose a threat, they coax him into helping them load up their van with contraband and are beside themselves when he shows they where Antonia had hidden the good cultery. They refuse to give him a lift into town, however, and he has to make his own way into the wide world for the first time. 

Stopping to puzzle over a satellite station on the brow of a hill, Lazzaro follows some migrants to an outhouse, where the elderly Nicola (Antonio Salines) is sat in a motorised wheelchair and conducting a work-rate auction to see who gets hired to pick olives. He doesn't recognise the unchanged youth and drives him away. But, when Lazzaro reaches a garage being robbed at knifepoint by Ultimo and Pippo, they offer him a lift across the snowy countryside and he is recognised by their accomplice, Antonia (Alba Rohrwacher), who falls to her knees because she is convinced that Lazzaro has risen from the dead like his New Testament namesake. 

They are living with several other villagers in a disused tank beside the railway line and they are astonished to see Lazzaro looking so young. He asks why they no longer reside in Inviolata and Pippo reads him a newspaper cutting about `The Great Swindle' that resulted in `the Queen of Cigarettes' going to prison for entrapping and exploiting 54 souls who had no idea of their plight. Clearly, they had never been paid the compensation promised in the article (or they had frittered it), but no one seems bitter, as they scrape by on stale crisps and scams like selling the Marchesa's musical cigarette box to unsuspecting passers-by, who are so delighted at getting a bargan that they fail to pay attention as it's being wrapped. 

Keen to do his bit, Lazzaro points out the edible vegetation growing beside the tracks. He also reintroduces the group to Tancredi (Tommaso Ragno), after he recognises his voice calling for the now lame Ercole. Pony-tailed and portly, Tancredi is amazed to see Lazzaro and smiles when he shows him the catapult he had given him in the hills. Slipping back into patrician mode, he asks Lazzaro to hold the dog while he tries to scam money out of an engineer seeking to initiate a development on De Luna estate. Roaring with laughter after being chased out of the bank, Tancredi asks Lazzaro to show him where he is living. Ultimo takes an instant dislike to him, but Tancredi invites them to lunch at his townhouse and gives Antonia instructions that they are to wash and brush up for the occasion, as his wife despise riff-raff. 

In order to make a good impression, they spend money they can't afford on fancy pastries and arrive punctually on the doorstep. However, Teresa (Elisabetta Rocchetti) refuses to allow them inside and even has the temerity to ask if they can leave the sweets, as times have been tough since the bank stopped giving them credit. Antonia's parents are affronted by the request, but she hands over the tray and they shuffle into a nearby church because Lazzaro wants to listen to the organ music. On seeing the scruffy band, a nun jumps up from her pew and ushers them out into the night. However, the music follows Lazzaro and, as the organ falls silent, it accompanies the villagers as they push Ultimo's broken-down truck back to the silo and discuss the prospect of returning to Inviolata and claiming the land for themselves. 

Shedding a single tear, as he sits beside an astro-turfed tree growing under a streetlight, Lazzaro hits upon a plan how to help Tancredi. The next morning, he wanders into a bank to ask the tellers to restore his half-brother's fortune. However, he doesn't understand the need to queue and is mistaken for a robber when he admits that he has a weapon in his back pocket. As the clerks play for time, one of the customers realises that Lazzaro doesn't have a gun and leaps on him. Others begin to kick and punch him. But, as the defenceless Lazzaro falls to the ground, he sees the wolf watching over him and feels a sense of peace, as he slips into unconsciousness and the creature weaves through the snarled traffic before picking up speed in making its bid for freedom. 

Italian cinema has long had a traditoin of coat-tailing, with sword and sandle epics of the 1950s recalling the superspectacles of the 1910s, while comedia all'italiana had its roos in the so-called `white telephone' comedies of the Fascist era. Ever since Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1942), however, the most enduring thread has been neo-realism and Alice Rohrwacher sprinkles a little magic realism over this exceptional saga, which was based on a true-life indenture scandal and also contains traces of such literary fabulists as Carlo Collodi and Italo Calvino. Yet, while Lazzaro has the feel of a latterday Pinocchio, it's also hard to avoid comparing Adriano Tardiolo's wide-eyed innocence with the guileless grace exhibited by Giulietta Massina in husband Federico Fellini's La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957).

Tardiolo excels as the holy fool wandering the byways of recent Italian political and cultural history, as Rohrwacher muses on the illusory nature of freedom and the fact that while the old aristocracy might have ceded its power to grasping oligarchs, the poor remain as disenfranchised and exploited as they were in feudal times. Indeed, many would agree with the Marchesa (played by Nicoletta Braschi, who, coincidentally, appeared as the Blue Fairy in husband Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio, 2002) when she claims that the peasants tied to the land had an easier time than today's urban fringe-dwellers, as they were not locked in the misery of realising they were slaves and could enjoy a modicum of contentment in knowing nothing about the greenness of the grass on the other side of the wall. 

The way in which Rohrwacher and production designer Emita Frigato keep the audience guessing about the precise temporal setting of the linked storylines is much more than a mere allegorical gimmick, therefore. But everything has its precise purpose in this exquisitely wrought picture, with Hélène Louvart's tactile Super-16 frames having rounded corners to reinforce the carefully calculated aura of faux nostalgia. Nelly Quettier's editing also has a precision to it, with the scenes of agricultural labouring recalling the construction of the charcoal mound in Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro volte (2010). 

Some might bridle at the Lazarus conceit, but Martin Scorsese was sufficiently convinced to sign on as executive producer and, frankly, the debuting Tardiolo (who looks as though he could have stepped out of a Renaissance portrait) is such a compelling presence that many viewers will be prepared to accept any far-fetched premise simply to keep returning his mesmeric gaze into the void.