Josh O’Connor breaks out his halting Italian as a grave-robbing rascal in Alice Rohrwacher’s divine exploration of time, history and memory.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny isn’t the only film at Cannes 2023 to concern itself with archaeological derring-do, ancient artefacts, memory and mortality: Set among the tombaroli, grave-robbers, in 1980s Italy, Alice Rohrwacher’s divine La Chimera is an observant and comic portrait of a moment within Italian history, and an earthy, shimmering fable about the gravesites we walk over every day.
Appropriately, it confirms Rohrwacher as a figure absolutely central to the continuing tradition – and thus the future – of cinema. La Chimera doesn’t belong in a museum, it’s a living one.
The film opens with Arthur (Josh O’Connor) napping on a train in a dirty, rumpled linen suit, like an Edwardian Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in a tent in the Valley of Kings and is only now waking up in Umbria.
A lapsed archaeologist played by O’Connor with halting Italian (written into the script) and touch of sunstroke, Arthur finds buried tombs with a dowsing rod and through visions – his “chimeras.”
Just sprung from jail as the film begins, “Arturo” joins back up with his old gang, a motley crew of small-time grave robbers who break into mostly small-time graves, filled with stone trinkets to accompany the souls of the anonymous dead. These local independent contractors sell off the artifacts to the unseen Spartaco, who operates out of a new glassy high-rise and is well-connected enough to operate at the scale of global capitalism in the deregulated 80s, paying off authorities and laundering the cultural plunder through internationally respectable museums and wealthy collectors.
From one perspective, the tombaroli are folk heroes, running from the carabinieri and liberating such natural resources as they can find beneath their feet. What good is it doing in the ground, after all – who are the heirs to the legacy of the dead, if not the living? But is our inheritance only material?
The Umbrian farmland is so full of buried Etruscan tombs that the tombaroli don’t even stop in awe as their flashlights survey sculptures and frescos unseen by living eyes in millenia – they just get to work with the crowbars. The past is everywhere – as a period film, La Chimera signifies its timeline by shooting in locations from the 1980s, which means both glassy new high-rise towers and the many other architectural periods that exist simultaneously in Italy, in various stages of ruin.
Arthur lives in a shanty town of sorts, at the base of a medieval city wall, surrounded by as-yet-unburied junk of a more modern vintage, but frequently visits Flora (Isabella Rossellini), the grandmother of his absent love Beniamina (glimpsed in flashbacks) in her crumbling centuries-old villa, filled with old objects: antique lamps to be plundered by her daughters, to own or to sell; clothes of dead relatives, for Arthur to borrow.
Down the hill is the local train station, abandoned for decades, grass growing high between the disused tracks. A character wonders: as a derelict plot of public property, does the station belong to everybody, or to nobody?
Rohrwacher is a magician, revealing the glimmers of the miraculous glinting within her realism with a little shimmy of the wrist, like an uncle pulling a coin from behind your ear. Shot in a combination of 16mm, Super 16mm, and 35mm by Hélène Louvart, La Chimera is fabulously tactile but also hyperreal, nostalgic and cinematic enough to encompass whimsical undercranking, exposition delivered via folk ballad, a direct reference to Federico Fellini’s Roma, even the presence of Isabella Rossellini herself, gracing the movie with her mother’s face and her father’s name. Naturalistic dialogue, when revisited later in the film, takes on the circular, fated logic of a dream.
Rohrwacher understands that time travel is part of everyday life, that we pass through several different timelines every day, that we even wear them on our bodies – a realization rooted in La Chimera, as it was in her previous feature, Happy as Lazzaro, in the vivid material reality of rural Italy.
Characters in her film participate in rural folkways and modern fads, donning clown makeup for a village Epiphany parade and dancing to synth-pop at an outdoor concert sponsored by the power plant; they dress in sturdy fabrics that could mark them as mid century peasants, aside from the occasional flash of electric-blue wool and lycra blend argyle socks.
Arthur is a kind of Orpheus, drawn back to the underworld with his subconscious visions of gravesites and ghosts, his chimeras and dreams of Beniamina. But as new buildings, and new possibilities, spring up around him, the film begins to question the lure of the past, and ponder whether the dead have the right to stay buried.
The film ends with Arthur in the courtyard of a half-built building, surrounded by open-walled concrete and a skeleton of exposed rebar. It’s unclear whether construction is ongoing or has been abandoned, and as Arthur plumbs the depths below him we don’t know whether the modern world around is being built up, or slowly coming down.
Published 26 May 2023