La Chimera

Starring Josh O'Connor, this 80s-set film about stolen Italian artefacts from director Alice Rohrwacher is a magical-realist gem.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 10, 2024


It's a film about searching for treasure, and it is indeed a treasure. La Chimera is also dreamy in its look and, while watching, makes its viewers feel as if they've been whisked into one. There's much that fantasies are made of in writer/director Alice Rohrwacher's fourth feature, which follows Corpo Celeste, The Wonders and Happy as Lazzaro — God's Own Country breakout and The Crown star Josh O'Connor leading the picture as a British archaeologist raiding tombs in 80s-era Italy chief among them. Thinking about Lara Croft, be it the game, or the Angelina Jolie (in 2001 and 2003 flicks)- or Alicia Vikander (2018's Tomb Raider)-led movies, is poking into the wrong patch of soil. Thinking instead about the way that life is built upon the dead again and again, and upon unearthed secrets as well, is part of what makes La Chimera gleam.

Rohrwacher's latest, which also boasts her Happy as Lazzaro collaborator Carmela Covino as a collaborating writer — plus Marco Pettenello (Io vivo altrove!) — resembles an illusion not just because it's a rare mix of both magical-realist and neorealist in one, too (well, rare for most who aren't this director). In addition, this blend of romance and drama alongside tragedy and comedy sports its mirage-esque vibe thanks to being so welcomely easy to get lost in. As a snapshot of a tombaroli gang in Tuscany that pilfers from Etruscan crypts to try to get by, it's a feature to dig into. As an example of how poetic a film can be, it's one to soar with. The loose red thread that weaves throughout La Chimera's frames, intriguing folks within the movie, also embodies how viewers should react: we want to chase it and hold on forever, even as we know that, as the feature's 130 minutes tick by, the picture is destined to slip through our fingers.

Wearing his crumpled linen suits and residing in his makeshift shack, O'Connor's Arthur knows what it's like to not be able to grasp tightly onto what you want. Just as the movie that he's in transports its audience four decades back, he's stuck in the past, obsessing over the missing Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello, The Beautiful Summer). Stolen Italian artefacts are his trade, with friends to help with the excavations but his own divining methods (rod included) locating where an invisible X marks the spot. When he's not dowsing and delving, or offloading the loot he extracts to antiquities dealers who profit from and perpetuate the cycle of tombaroli thievery far more than Arthur and his pals, the mansion of Beniamina's mother Flora (Isabella Rossellini, Spaceman) is his frequent pilgrimage.

It was equally true of The Wonders and Happy as Lazzaro: a movie by Rohrwacher, and with cinematographer Hélène Louvart (Disco Boy, The Lost Daughter, Never Rarely Sometimes Always) behind the lens, is a movie that looks ethereal and earthy at once. Shot on a mix of  different film stocks (35-millimetre, 16-millimetre and Super16), La Chimera's imagery virtually floats, but it similarly sees the dirt and the grit. Arthur's journey couldn't better live and breathe that contrast as he illicitly uncovers riches in a marvellous setting, but not without the grime and the risk that goes with it. He also starts the feature freshly released from jail for his grave-robbing manner of making a living, then spends his time chasing more 2000-year-old pieces — pottery, statues and such — that mysterious broker Spartaco will pay for, as punctuated with chats with Flora and a burgeoning connection with her housekeeper Italia (Carol Duarte, Segunda Chamada).

The language of archaeology, whether taking from the dead or studying history through its physical remains, is the language of discovering and seeking — and mine, disinter and pursue, Arthur does, including with his feelings and hopes. He pines for his lost love while burrowing down where valuables, secrets and lives gone by are kept; he's navigating his own Orpheus and Eurydice as well. He's haunted, plunging literally to where such torments spring from in humanity's eternal grappling with mortality, and also emotionally and psychologically into memories that gnaw as if they too are possessed. A mastery of symbolism is among Rohrwacher's many skills as a filmmaker; however, so is a command of effortlessly lingering in the realm, as La Chimera does, between the tangible and intangible.

Here's another talent to her name: casting, especially with O'Connor standing in front of the camera. While Rossellini's involvement is a magnificent touch — only she can switch to marauding from warm, and back, so naturalistically and so quickly; also, the link with Italian cinema history that she brings via her director father Roberto Rossellini, the neorealist great, is so wonderfully apt — O'Connor is an exquisite choice as La Chimera's lead. Rumpled charm, lost-soul melancholy, drifting and yearning, a hold on his temper that's flimsier than a deal on the relics black market: as Arthur, he conveys or has them all. A picture as enigmatic as this needs someone at its centre that's able to both go with its flow and be grounded — and again, in a role that joins Mothering Sunday, Emma, Hope Gap and Challengers on his post-God's Own Country resume, that's O'Connor. 

As La Chimera proves evocative and expressive, and loose and playful, it takes its audience on an adventure so layered and distinctive that Rohrwacher could be the only one guiding it. Thoughtful and contemplative as her film also is, it has clear eyes to stare daggers at social inequality, and towards those who think that they can own the past. Forming a trilogy with The Wonders and Happy as Lazzaro — one about beekeepers, the other about sharecroppers, each fascinated with communities that are far from the everyday now, as with the tombaroli — La Chimera almost feels as if it has pulled off a heist itself, then. In ensuring that every single element of the movie works perfectly, this gem steals itself a place as an unforgettable piece of cinema; long may it keep being cherished.


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