La Chimera

La Chimera

2023, NR, 133 min. Directed by Alice Rohrwacher. Starring Josh O’Connor, Carol Duarte, Vincenzo Nemolato, Isabella Rossellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, Yile Vianello.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 5, 2024

“The Englishman.” Appropriately folkloric, that’s what a troubadour in 1980s Italy dubs Arthur (O’Connor) in song. The exploits of the Englishman Arthur and his misfit friends are ripe for mythologizing: They’re tombaroli, or grave robbers, digging in secret for ancient artifacts they can sell on the black market. An archaeologist gone rogue, Arthur is an outsider in Italy, but he’s comfortable in this language and milieu; he’s more or less fluent. He’s less comfortable in this world – the land of the living. His fellow tombaroli are in it for the money. Arthur, meanwhile, is looking for a doorway to the dead.

Newly released from a short stint in prison – their pillaging of long-lost Etruscan tombs is illegal, after all – Arthur reluctantly returns to this merry band of thieves at film’s beginning. (The grime of prison still on him, he clears a train car with his stink, La Chimera’s first indication of a playful streak.) Arthur is not the tombaroli’s leader; he’s more like the talent. Divining rod in hand, he has a preternatural intuition about where to dig. Is it because his purpose is higher? He is trying to find a way to the afterlife, a tether to his lost love Beniamina (Vianello). Arthur is haunted by her – the film opens with him dreaming of her, a dream he returns to often.

Does Arthur really believe he and Beniamina can somehow reconcile? Hard to say: Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher’s fourth narrative feature – a soft kiss of magical realism here, a Keystone Cops caper there – is dreamily disorienting. On his dowsing rambles, Arthur falls to his feet when he senses buried treasure, in a literal swoon. I know the feeling: La Chimera had me swooning, too.

“Indelible” is the word I kept circling back to: not just in the sense of foreverness embedded in the story’s setting – the relics they dig up, the centuries-old stonework they casually live among. It’s the indelibleness of the images, too, the kind that fish-hook in your brain and never leave you, and not just because they are pretty but because they are revealing, too. The out-of-season suit the newly freed Arthur starts the film in, telegraphing his out-of-timeness. A walk through a decrepit villa, where the help is dismantling a chair – probably priceless – and feeding it to a fire. The way two bodies become magnetized when they’re thinking about kissing.

I’d say that O’Connor – late of Netflix’s The Crown, soon to be seen in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers – delivers a star-making performance as Arthur, only I suspect not enough people will see Rohrwacher’s arty, rapturous picture to give him the necessary juice. Rohrwacher’s films, including The Wonders (2014) and Happy as Lazzaro (2018), perform better in Europe, where she’s rightly acknowledged as a modern master. (Further, the film’s puzzling distribution put it in front of international eyeballs and awards bodies last year, but American critics barely saw it. It made my top 10 list, and it would have jumped even higher if I’d had the chance to watch it again.) No matter: O’Connor is a first-class Jean-Paul Belmondo-like brooder, until he something trips him up and he beams like a little boy. More often than not, it’s Italia (Duarte), a sort-of lady’s companion-slash-servant girl, who cracks his melancholia. Italia is a kook – she seems to process the world differently and find magic in surprise places – and the same can also be said for Rohrwacher, a true visionary.

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La Chimera, Alice Rohrwacher, Josh O’Connor, Carol Duarte, Vincenzo Nemolato, Isabella Rossellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, Yile Vianello

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