Alice Rohrwacher makes films like no other. Her extraordinary work ventures into Italy’s labyrinthine past through fascinating small communities, vanishing races that seem to float in time. In The miracles, it was a family of beekeepers, like that of the director; in Happy as Lazzaro, they were isolated sharecroppers kept in the feudal obscurity by exploitative landowners; and in the bracingly strange and lyrical La Chimerait’s a ragtag band of tombaroliillegal grave robbers who excavate Etruscan relics and make their living selling those antiquities on fences which they in turn sell to museums and collectors for much larger sums.
The three films form an informal trilogy — set in the regions of Tuscany and Umbria where Rohrwacher was born and grew up — about the delicate thread between life and death, past and present. The latter remains alive and well almost everywhere in Italy, an ancient specter with a wide reach that extends into contemporary life. That temporal duality, as in the earlier films, informs the enveloping sense of place. Rohrwacher makes films that you sink into rather than watch emotionlessly, taking the time to create the milieu as her characters and stories unfold in layers.
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The title alludes to unattainable dreams and illusory promises, which for these marauders of history is the prospect of getting rich with one great find that will help them all for life. The chimera of Englishman Arthur (Josh O’Connor) is Beniamina, the woman he loved and lost, who haunts his dreams. The tombaroli consider Arthur to be something of a mystic, able to locate fertile places to dig with a forked tree branch serving as a dowsing rod, the power of each find sapping his power.
It’s a wonderful role for the very gifted O’Connor, who made his breakthrough in 2017 in Francis Lee’s instant queer classic, God’s own countryand has been making adventurous choices ever since.
Dressed for much of the film in a cream linen suit that is dingy and wrinkled, like a gentleman archaeologist or a sowing continental traveler, Arthur lives among the plants and trees in a makeshift shanty on the ancient walls of the city. That unheated home no doubt contributed to the chronic cough he developed. He feels at home among the band of tomb robbers, but is also trapped in his own head, less fixated on the riches to be found underground than on the mythological gateway to the afterlife, where he may reconnect with Beniamina.
Arthur is introduced on a train – fellow passengers, an illegal salesman and a conductor will later appear in a disturbing interlude – returning from we don’t know where to and heading back to a place somewhere near Riparbella in Tuscany. It is there that Beniamina’s physically frail but still formidable mother, Flora (Isabella Rossellini), lives in a crumbling villa with an unpaid housekeeper, Italia (Carol Duarte), who believes she works in exchange for singing lessons, even if la signora freely admits she is. tone deaf.
Duarte, one of Karim Ainouz’s discoveries Invisible life, has a nicely understated understanding of daffy comedy and plays a delightful character who is cunning enough to keep secrets but altruistic in her main deceit. Little moments when Italia records her household ironing mishaps are priceless.
In a film that not only contains references to ghosts rooted in the story, but also to the illustrious past of Italian cinema – notably with Pasolini, but also early Fellini, Ermanno Olmi and the Taviani Brothers, Rossellini’s presence seems particularly important.
Bringing all her natural warmth, wit and spirit to the role, she makes Flora a dotty eccentric but also sharp as a tack. She seems to believe that her beloved Beniamina will come back, despite her troop’s insistence of four remaining daughters insisting otherwise – hilariously meddlesome, predatory and talking all at once. Arthur, on the other hand, never tries to dissuade Flora from the idea because he shares it on some level.
(Echoing Rossellini’s heartbreaking voice work Marcel the shell with shoes on, La Chimera again begs the eternal question – why don’t we see more of this radiant queen in movies?)
The mutual affection of Flora and the grieving Englishman is as essential to the heart of the film as Arthur’s melancholy yearning for Beniamina or his hesitant romantic attachment to Italia. That first falters when she discovers what Arthur and his cohorts are up to at night and she recoils in superstitious horror that they are disturbing the spirits of the dead.
Arthur spends time with the tombaroli who take part in the town’s Carnival celebrations, with most of the group’s men dressing up in ostentatious drag, riding a tractor through the narrow streets in the parade, accompanied by a marching band. (That sequence represents another link to the past.) Or they sing around a bonfire or drink at a bar where a cantastoryliterally a storyteller, delivers a lustful performance of a ballad that illustrates the tombaroli’s colorful history and place in the whole.
Their nocturnal forays generally yield small finds, such as painted pottery and figurines, which are deposited in the graves of ordinary citizens as gifts to the dead, to save their souls. These items get a modest price from the fence they trade through brokers known as Spartaco, and even that requires some haggling. But one night on the coast, in the shadow of industrial smokestacks, Arthur’s intuitive powers lead them to a huge find, a 5th century sacred shrine containing priceless treasures, slipping through their fingers before they can even grab them.
The tombaroli’s attempts to reclaim their bounty create a twist in the story, almost in thriller territory, which isn’t entirely in harmony with the overarching narrative. But it does serve a dual purpose. It marks Rohrwacher’s characteristic drift from a rustic world that existed at an unidentifiable point in the 20th century to a colder, less innocent time, which in this film is the early 1980s. Plus, it allows for the introduction of a slippery character played with dismal enthusiasm by the director’s sister and frequent collaborator, Alba Rohrwacher.
Each change of tone feels legitimate given the appealing looseness, the rule-breaking whimsicality with which the director (here aided by editor Nelly Quettier) shapes her stories. Rohrwacher injects quiet comic notes by using bouncy fast-motion in scenes where the grave robbers are chased carabinieri and flips frames to change our perspective. She gets a creative mix of music choices from Monteverdi and Mozart to Kraftwerk electro pop and Italian rock from Franco Battiato and Vasco Rossi.
The director also manipulates texture throughout, shifting DP Hélène Louvart’s mesmerizing images through different film types and aspect ratios. There is a hazy dream beauty in the film’s intermissions that suggests a transition between two worlds.
That suspended state resonates most poignantly in O’Connor’s poignant performance, hovering between candor and fatalism, between the comforting escape from dreams and the sadness of reality. Whether Arthur will let go of the past or find a path in it is the great mystery of the film.
One of the main themes La Chimera considering who owns the past. Unlike the terrifying Italia, the tombaroli believe that whatever is left behind is fair game, and consider the Etruscans naïve in thinking that treasures so easily unearthed would stay put. But ownership proves to be a weak thing even in the present as we see evidence that the grave robbers are just simple links in a chain. That chain becomes much more lucrative at the next level, making them cheap labor in a greed driven market.
The meditation on who gets to claim the past even goes beyond the grave robbers in a beautiful interlude with direct impact at the end of the film. During a field trip to the once grand but long-abandoned train station of Riparbella, Italia asks who owns it. With a wise and wistful look in her eyes, Flora tells her to everyone and to no one.