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8 May 2024

La Chimera is a charming tale of history and myth

Alice Rohrwacher’s playful, Palme d’Or-nominated film about tomb raiders summons the ghosts of Italy’s past.

By Pippa Bailey

The Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s first feature, Corpo Celeste, was concerned with the heavenly realms above. Her fourth, La Chimera, nominated for the Palm d’Or at last year’s Cannes, takes us into the soil beneath.

Josh O’Connor (also now in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers) plays Arthur, an Englishman in an increasingly filthy cream linen suit, living in backwater Tuscany in the 1980s. Like a reverse Indiana Jones, he is an archaeologist gone bad: he has the paranormal power to find Etruscan tombs by using a dowser, collapsing on the leaves that cover them from the effort. His abilities place him at the centre of a band of Italian tombaroli, or tomb raiders, who dig up these long-buried treasures and sell them to a shady dealer, Spartaco.

In La Chimera’s opening scene, Arthur is woken from train-lulled reverie about his lost love, Beniamina, by a conductor, to whom he presents a letter in place of a ticket. Between this, a confrontation with a travelling salesman and a conversation about noses with a group of local girls, we eventually discern that Arthur is returning to his boisterous tombaroli after a stint in prison, presumably related to his grave-robbing. La Chimera is often like this: meandering and laden with whimsy, but charming enough to be forgiven.

When he is not scrabbling around in the dirt by torchlight, Arthur visits the crumbling villa of his lost lover’s ageing mother, Flora (Isabella Rossellini), who maintains an altar to her absent daughter. There he meets the plucky, wily Italia (Carol Duarte), who is tone-deaf but works as an unpaid maid to Flora in return for singing lessons. When he stumbles upon her secret – that she is also keeping her two children in the house, unbeknown to Flora – they are bound together in silence: she offers him a “crash course” in Italian, which, fittingly, consists entirely of hand gestures. Holding together these and various other diversions is O’Connor, whose performance is exquisitely balanced – mournful and brooding, sweet and gruff – and whose Italian is (a fluent friend tells me) imperfect but good.

Rohrwacher has spoken of her country’s ability “to laugh about its own tragedies”, and La Chimera has oddball comedic elements. Fight scenes and police chases are sped up, as if in a Keystone Cops film. The tombaroli’s rendezvous point with Spartaco’s lackeys is at a vet’s; air holes are cut in boxes of stolen goods as if to allow a puppy to breathe. At one point a female character breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to camera about how the Etruscans could save modern Italian men from the tyranny of machismo.

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The French cinematographer and frequent Rohrwacher collaborator Hélène Louvart matches Arthur’s antiquities with cinematic ones. The aspect ratio slips between the amateur 16mm and the film-making standard 35mm, at times with rounded corners or fuzzy edges, without an apparent logic, as if each stock was reached for on instinct.

Rohrwacher’s Eighties Italy is stagnant and eroding. There is an element, too, of spiritual decay: the dead, left in peace for thousands of years, are met by a new generation unrestrained by conventional morality. In this sense, La Chimera nods to the realist postwar films of Roberto Rossellini (father of Isabella). But it is also surrealist and Fellini-esque, influenced by myth and fairy tale. One of its most striking visual refrains is a red thread that trails from the bottom of Beniamina’s dress, its end disappearing into the ground. Is it the red thread of Chinese mythology, invisibly bound around the fingers of two lovers destined to meet? Or Ariadne’s thread, given in Greek myth to Theseus to help him escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth? Perhaps Arthur and Beniamina are Orpheus and Eurydice, she condemned to the underworld, he to writing songs of mourning. Arthur uses his divining powers to seek out the dead, but it is Beniamina he is really searching for.

La Chimera is about these in-between places, where the ancient and the modern, the dead and the living, meet. Arthur is surrounded by ghosts; his companions teem with garrulous life. The tombaroli have no compunction about their activities, but Rohrwacher is concerned by the cost of disturbing the dead. At one point the camera takes us inside a tomb before it is uncovered, and we see how the colours of its ornate wall paintings fade when the light touches them. It is no coincidence that the character who most strongly protests the plundering of her country’s history, Italia, is named for it. At an abandoned railway station she asks: “Does it belong to no one, or everyone?”

“La Chimera” is in cinemas now

[See also: The Fall Guy vs The Idea of You: should romcoms be sincere or ironic?]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll