Alice Rohrwacher makes movies like no one else. Her extraordinary work ventures into Italy’s labyrinthine past through fascinating pocket communities, vanishing breeds that seem suspended in time. In The Wonders, it was a family of beekeepers, like the director’s own; in Happy as Lazzaro, it was isolated sharecroppers kept in the feudal dark by exploitative landowners; and in the invigoratingly strange and lyrical La Chimera, it’s a ragtag band of tombaroli, illegal grave-robbers who dig up Etruscan relics and make their money selling those antiquities on to fences who in turn sell them to museums and collectors for vastly larger sums.
The three films make up 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, present and past. The latter remains very much alive almost everywhere you look in Italy, an ancient specter with a long reach extending into contemporary life. That temporal duality, as in the earlier films, informs the enveloping sense of place. Rohrwacher makes movies you sink into rather than watch dispassionately, taking time to establish the milieu as her characters and stories reveal themselves in layers.
The Bottom Line
The title refers to unattainable dreams and illusory promises, which for these looters of history is the prospect of striking it rich with one major find that will set them all up for life. The chimera of the Englishman Arthur (Josh O’Connor) is Beniamina, the woman he loved and lost, who haunts his dreams. The tombaroli regard Arthur as a kind of mystic, able to locate fruitful spots to dig with a forked tree branch that serves as a divining rod, the force of each find sapping his strength.
The is a wonderful part for the very gifted O’Connor, who got his breakthrough in 2017 in Francis Lee’s instant queer classic, God’s Own Country, and has been making adventurous choices ever since.
Dressed for much of the movie in a cream linen suit that’s grubby and rumpled, like a gentleman archeologist or a continental traveler gone to seed, Arthur lives among the plants and trees in a makeshift shanty on the town’s ancient walls. That unheated dwelling no doubt contributed to the chronic cough he’s developed. He’s at home among the carousing bunch of grave-robbers, but also stuck in his own head, fixated less on the wealth to be found underground than the mythological entryway to the afterlife, where he might reconnect with Beniamina.
Arthur is introduced on a train — fellow passengers, an illegal vendor and a conductor will figure in an unsettling interlude later on — returning from we don’t know where and heading back to a place somewhere around Riparbella in Tuscany. It’s 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’s working in exchange for vocal lessons even if la signora freely concedes that she’s tone deaf.
Duarte, one of the discoveries of Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life, has a nicely understated grasp of daffy comedy, playing a delightful character wily enough to keep secrets but altruistic in her chief deception. Little moments in which Italia registers her mishaps with the household’s ironing are priceless.
In a movie laced with nods not just to ghosts rooted in the story but to Italian cinema’s illustrious past — most notably with Pasolini, but also early Fellini, Ermanno Olmi and the Taviani Brothers, among others — Rossellini’s presence seems especially significant.
Bringing all her natural warmth, humor and spirit to the role, she makes Flora a dotty eccentric but also sharp as a tack. She seems to believe her beloved Beniamina will come back, despite the insistence to the contrary of her gaggle of four remaining daughters — hilariously meddlesome, predatory and all talking at once. Arthur, on the other hand, never tries to disabuse Flora of the idea, because on some level, he shares it.
(Following Rossellini’s heart-tugging voice work in Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, La Chimera again raises the eternal question — why don’t we see more of this radiant queen in movies?)
The mutual fondness of Flora and the sad Englishman is as essential to the movie’s heart as Arthur’s melancholy yearning for Beniamina or his hesitant romantic connection with Italia. That falters at first when she discovers what Arthur and his cohorts get up to at night and she backs away in superstitious horror about them disturbing the spirits of the dead.
Arthur spends time with the tombaroli participating in the town’s carnival celebrations, in which most of the group’s men dress in gaudy drag, riding a tractor down the narrow streets in the parade, accompanied by a brass band. (That sequence represents another link to the past.) Or they sing around a bonfire or drink in a bar where a cantastorie, literally a story-singer, delivers a lusty performance of a ballad illustrating the tombaroli’s colorful history and place in the scheme of things.
Their nighttime forays generally yield small finds like painted earthenware and figurines, deposited in the tombs of ordinary citizens as gifts to the dead, to save their souls. These items fetch a modest price from the fence they deal with through intermediaries, known as Spartaco, and even that requires some haggling. But on the coastal shores one night, in the shadow of industrial smokestacks, Arthur’s intuitive powers lead them to a massive find, a 5th century holy sanctuary containing treasures of incalculable value, which slip through their fingers even before they can seize them.
The tombaroli’s efforts to reclaim their bounty cause a pivot in the narrative almost into thriller territory, which is not entirely harmonious with the overarching story. But it does serve a dual purpose. It marks Rohrwacher’s characteristic swerve from a rustic world existing at some unidentifiable point in the 20th century into 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 nasty gusto by the director’s sister and frequent collaborator, Alba Rohrwacher.
Any change in tone feels legitimate given the appealing looseness, the rule-breaking capriciousness with which the director (aided here by editor Nelly Quettier) shapes her stories. Rohrwacher injects silent comedy notes by using jumpy fast-motion in scenes with the grave-robbers being chased by carabinieri and inverts frames to alter our perspective. She gets creative mixing up music choices, from Monteverdi and Mozart to Kraftwerk electro-pop and Italian rock by Franco Battiato and Vasco Rossi.
The director also manipulates texture throughout, shuffling DP Hélène Louvart’s mesmerizing visuals among different film stocks and aspect ratios. There’s woozy dream-beauty to intermittent stretches of the movie that suggests a passage between two worlds.
That suspended state resonates with most poignancy in O’Connor’s affecting performance, floating between open-heartedness and fatalism, between the comforting escape of dreams and the sadness of reality. Whether Arthur will let go of the past or find a path into it is the movie’s big mystery.
One of the key themes La Chimera considers is who owns the past. Unlike the fearful Italia, the tombaroli believe everything left behind is fair game, regarding the Etruscans as naïve in thinking that treasures so easily unearthed would stay put. But ownership even in the present is revealed to be a tenuous thing as we see evidence that the grave-robbers are just lowly links in a chain. That chain becomes far more lucrative at the next level, making them cheap labor in a greed-driven market.
The meditation on who gets to claim the past continues even beyond the grave-robbers in a lovely interlude with direct impact on the film’s conclusion. During an excursion to the once grand but long abandoned Riparbella train station, Italia asks who owns it. With a wise and wistful look in her eyes, Flora tells her everyone and no one.