Italian director Alice Rohrwacher is back in Cannes with La Chimera three years after winning the best screenplay honor for Happy as Lazzaro in 2018 and fresh off her first-ever Oscar nomination for the short film Le Pupille, produced by Oscar-winning Mexican director (and self-professed Rohrwacher fan) Alfonso Cuarón.
Like its mysterious, mythic title, La Chimera is itself a bit of an illusion. The film’s surface-level plot — about a group of shady tomb-raiding archeologists, led by Arthur (The Crown and God’s Own Country actor Josh O’Connor) — soon reveals a much deeper, poetic tale about nature, death and the impact of history on our lives. It is cinema as excavation: A search for the hidden wonder in the everyday. Isabella Rossellini and Rohrwacher’s actress sister Alba, a frequent collaborator, co-star.
Speaking to THR Roma ahead of the film’s Cannes debut, Rohrwacher discussed how the COVID-19 lockdown inspired the story, why Alba is her “first reader” and “the first person I show the first cut of my film” and why artificial intelligence will never replace “organic dumb” cinema: “Machines can’t make mistakes.”
A movie about tomb riders, hidden treasures and ancient Etruscans: Where did this topic came from? True stories? Legends?
The story of the region where I grew up has always been linked to these findings. Stories that go: “Ah, that guy found this incredible vase; he sold it to another guy, who sold it to the Louvre. This other guy found a gold necklace.” Everyone spoke about these incredible discoveries, that were always made at night, all clearly illegal. So a lot of stories had accumulated in my ears on this theme, on this world.
But I don’t believe this film would have been born if I hadn’t written it during the lockdown, during COVID, when death became a presence, a very strong presence. And so the thought of how we relate to death, how we relate to the afterlife, in different epochs, somehow created a need to tell a story that started with these thieves who steal burial decorations and so also steal an idea of death. They steal something that was not built for men.
Where did you shoot it? How did you reconstruct these spaces?
We shot it in Tarquinia, mainly in Tarquinia, but also in Blera, San Lorenzo, in many places in the Viterbese region. We didn’t shoot inside a real necropolis because I am a bit of a believer (laughs) it would have felt terrible to shoot there. So we shot in caves that we later transformed into tombs. The treasure hunt is one part of the film and, like all searches for treasure, it’s also quite adventurous. The film, though, is mainly about a man and his Chimera, his illusion. The chimera is something that we try to grasp, to freeze in an image, but it mutates constantly and we never manage to reach it.
The black market in art and artifacts — which is really a big, big business — is just a small part of the story. Why didn’t you focus on that?
On one hand, you can say they are tomb raiders, they are people who steal property that belongs to the state. But this illegal part, this in-the-shadows part, interested me less than the moment when a man feels entitled to enter a sacred space, because he no longer has faith, and destroys it. He feels he has that right because he feels different and entitled. So he can enter a space that was created not for the eyes of men, and take it away, take it to the sunlight. Maybe it’s a bit complicated as a topic. Then, of course, I tried to show all this in the stupidest, funniest, most ironic way possible, but it is a bit of a heavy theme.
Why did you cast a non-Italian, English actor Josh O’Connor, as the head of the tomb raiders?
Because we need the foreigner. We need the point of view of the foreigner, we need to do everything we can to make our point of view a foreign one. This is, I think, something important that concerns our whole society. Being able to look with the eyes of a foreigner is maybe the best way to see ourselves. It was a story so linked to my region, to my territory, that having a “foreign” guide allowed me to have another way to look at things and show them in a different way.
Among these collaborators around you, there is also your sister, Alba Rohrwacher, who also returns in this film. What’s your creative relationship with her?
I don’t know how to generalize or separate things out. She’s an indispensable presence for me. She is one of the people who are dearest to me, closer and more revelatory of my weaknesses, and of my strengths because she has known me since I was born. It’s a great privilege for me to have her by my side both as a person, as a human being, and as an actress. In this last film, La Chimera, her role is really as an apparition, it’s a really small, fairy-tale type of cameo, but for me, it was super important to have her. She is definitely my first reader of whatever I write, and the first person to whom I show the first cut of my film. Her voice is fundamental. When we were teenagers we used to share the same room. Now we share the room of thought, the room of imagination.
You’ve taken part in big international projects. You directed episodes of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend and the short film Le Pupille, which was produced by Alfonso Cuarón for Disney and received an Oscar nomination. Are you comfortable, as a proudly independent author, in this more international world?
Well, they are two very particular projects, because for My Brilliant Friend, [series creator] Saverio Costanzo took me under his wing, and so I was protected by the exceptional writing, by a cast that had already been chosen, by an incredible crew. I had the joy of being able to experience pure film directing, which I had never done before. I’d always had the responsibility not only for the directing, but also for the script, the cast, everything. It was really nice to be able to just be the surgeon, or the chef, who finds the ingredients already there and then cooks. This was very nice but it was a special situation where I was helped, I was not alone. It was a similar case for Le Pupille. The project already existed at Disney. Alfonso Cuarón really wanted to make this short, so he protected it. I wasn’t all on my own facing some huge production task. I must say though, in both these situations, where I admit I wasn’t alone at the helm, I was amazed by the extreme freedom I had. In my career, I’ve said “no” many times. I am often offered to direct a film from someone else’s screenplay. But with the exception of My Brilliant Friend, which of course is also a novel, a book that goes way back, I’ve never been able to confront the task [of directing] someone else’s screenwriting.
Your supporters include Sofia Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Cuarón. Are you starting to feel the weight of expectations?
It’s strange because I think that when you choose to do this work, you do it mainly for a need, an inner need, and to look for a means of expression, to look for a chance to speak through images. So, in a way, the greatest expectation is always the one that comes from within you, from your own need. I feel the expectations of others, yes, they worry me. I know that once I’m daring, I’m always risking failure, and every time I finish a film, I’m deeply aware that I’m on a razor’s edge, that it could be a disaster but it could also be beautiful.
But the first person I’m always afraid to disappoint is the person who lives inside me, perhaps the little girl who lives inside me. And then it’s clear that life is made of ups, downs, parties, depressions and all of this is part of this Arabesque, part of this game and must be taken into account, you can’t, you cannot please everyone.
Artificial intelligence is the talk of the movie industry right now. Can you imagine yourself working on a script with the help of AI?
I am more “organic dumb” than “artificially intelligent,” so it’s very difficult for me to have a say on this topic. I know I am ignorant. I know I don’t know exactly what is happening in the meanders of science, and I know that it clearly concerns and will continue to concern our lives. Yet I believe there are things that cannot be replaced, such as having to digest food that was not already processed, such as having to confront oneself with raw material. What worries me is how we seem to be heading toward an extreme refinement of, to use the food metaphor, an extreme refinement of images, of the images that nourish us. But in reality, the raw material from which these images are refined [the data] is dead matter, it’s not living matter, and I believe that deep down a human being can feel it, can taste it. I know that if you taste real food, you can feel it. Inside a living story, you feel the difference. If I eat images that are made of dead material, I see it. If they are images with mistakes but made out of living material, I can feel it. So maybe what we have left is to create things that maybe are not perfect, maybe not perfectly sophisticated, but that are alive, that have mistakes. The machine can’t make mistakes.
Are you happy with the film? I mean: have you found your chimera?
Am I happy? Happiness is a chimera, a chimera that you never reach. More than happiness, I feel peaceful, because this was a long trip and I feel serene about the idea of finally presenting this film. Presenting a film is also about reaching the end of a very long journey, so you also arrive tired, but you really feel like arriving. The desire to finally show the film is very strong, and alongside that is the fear of revealing a film. But I think I’m in good company, I’ll be alright.