Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Cast: Josh O’Connor, Isabella Rossellini, Carol Duarte, Alba Rohrwacher, Vincenzo Nemolato
Released: Cannes Film Festival 2023
Although films like La Chimera, Kidnapped, or A Brighter Tomorrow did not win any prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, Italian cinema was well represented at the 76th edition of the festival. In particular, Alice Rohrwacher’s film seems to have been loved by the Cannes audience as it was considered a front-runner for the Palme d’Or. La Chimera marks Rohrwacher’s return to the Cannes Film Festival after previously winning various categories at Cannes in 2011 and 2014. Most recently, Rohrwacher won the Best Screenplay award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival with Lazzaro Felice and served on the jury the year after.
The film follows a young British archaeologist, Arthur (Josh O’Connor), in the early 1980s when he returns to a small town in Tuscany after having been to jail. There, Arthur returns to a life of crime as he is reunited with his so-called friends, the local band of tombaroli, a group of people who steal and sell archaeological wonders from ancient Etruscan tombs by taking advantage of Arthur’s gift for finding such burial sites. Despite Arthur’s unwillingness to go back to the activity that landed him in prison, to begin with, he is quick to resume his tombarolo habits, pressured by his so-called friends who need him for the tom raiding and by his debt to Spartaco, a wealthy art dealer who paid for Arthur’s release from jail.
Josh O’Connor acting in the film is incredibly poignant and layered, which is all the more impressive considering he is not only acting in two languages but also that the majority of his lines are delivered in Italian, which he learned specifically for this film. While the rest of the cast also does an incredible job at making these characters and their world come to life, Arthur remains the pivotal figure of La Chimera. In fact, Arthur is the one who seems to unite the array of different characters. While they may seemingly have little to do with each other, all of them are in search of their very own chimera, something they desperately want but never manage to find or achieve.
La Chimera reveals its cinematic influences rooted in Italian cinema visually. On one hand, the neorealist inspiration is clear in the choice to use both professional and non-professional actors, as well as in Rohrwacher’s focus on portraying the chaos of a community. While the ever-present chaos is often around the main character, the film does function as a portrayal of a very peculiar group dynamic. On the other hand, another clear influence is that of Pasolini and Fellini, as evident in the impactful sequences that reveal the Etruscan tombs before they are raided. All of this contributes to creating a very unique style, one that feels both real and mystical, thus establishing Rohrwacher and her directing style as an auteur.
Similarly, the Italian culture La Chimera is embedded in is really allowed to shine through in the film. Not only is it filmed in Italy, but the film also takes time to showcase its scenic setting, a decaying and yet still beautiful region in central Italy, perhaps not too unlike the ancient graves the tombaroli feel entitled to. In a similar fashion, Rohrwacher also does not shy away from including the Italian dialect specific to Tuscany as well as Italian songs. In fact, the film includes different types of Italian music, as it features various musical moments. Some of these felt a little bit unnecessary at times, although the idea of a troubadour retelling Arthur’s story is a fascinating one.
What may be the most interesting aspect of La Chimera is the fact that the film, just like its protagonist, seems to exist in a liminal space between life and death. As such, the movie can investigate the topic of memory, one that seems to be particularly dear to the director, as she has previously dealt with similar questions in her previous movies. This is shown visually, too, with various upside-down shots that seem to visually underline Arthur’s connection to the underworld. This is integral to Arthur’s character as he seems to have a connection with the world of the dead that goes beyond his passion for archaeology.
From the opening scene, the audience immediately understands that Arthur has been left heartbroken by the loss of his girlfriend, Benjamina, who he is still desperately looking for. Much like Arthur is tormented by the need to search for Benjamina, La Chimera is haunted by this character: she returns in multiple conversations and in various shots throughout the film, like a ghost that Arthur can’t – and won’t – let go of. In some sense, their heart-breaking story finds an end with the ending of the film as the two can now be reunited, or at least, we can believe in the illusion that they will be.
Overall, La Chimera is a masterful and ultimately heart-breaking work. With a seemingly light-hearted tone, the film invites us to think about existential questions of memory, grief, and our own relationship with death and funeral rites. At the same time, La Chimera succeeds in not imposing any moral judgement on its characters, despite their dreadful action that anyone would normally frown upon. Particularly memorable are the shots inside the tombs before they are raided, making the audience take the point of view of the world of the death that Arthur keeps going after.
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