La Chimera: a joyous, masterful work of folk magic

Josh O’Connor plays a melancholic grave-robber who makes a living looting artefacts from ancient Tuscan burial sites in Alice Rohrwacher’s bewitching new feature.

1 June 2023

By Jessica Kiang

La Chimera (2023)La Chimera (2023) © Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival 2023
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. 

Weeds grow through the cracks in every pavement in Alice Rohrwacher’s wayward, wondrous La Chimera. They twine through the flagstones outside the crumbling Tuscan manor where Flora (Isabella Rossellini) awaits the return of a daughter who disappeared, imperiously ignoring the visiting chatter of the four who did not. They straggle between the sleepers of the railway tracks outside the abandoned Riparbella station house, tripping up the little kids – hair sticky from headlice ointment – who play on them. Just like the ragged life that bursts and floods the frames of Helène Louvart’s wild, windswept photography, the weeds of La Chimera can’t be stopped and won’t be tamed, reaching up into the sunlight from the cool, dark underground. Which is also, of course, where the dead live. 

Connecting underground and overground, the realm of the dead and the land of the living, there’s Arthur (Josh O’Connor) a young Englishman in an increasingly grimy linen suit, who seems to have settled and sprouted here: a seed carried in on the breeze. It is the early 1980s and Arthur is rudely awoken from a train-lulled dream of his gone-girlfriend, Benjamina, by the conductor asking for his ticket. He is returning to the region after a stint in jail for the crime of grave-robbing. Arthur and his gang of local tombaroli have for some years made their living using Arthur’s uncanny knack for dowsing to locate and plunder ancient Etruscan burial sites, fencing the booty to a shady dealer known as Spartaco. 

He immediately falls back into his old tombarolo habits. Though Rohrwacher sometimes films these raids in the knockabout fast-motion of a one-reeler silent, Arthur is worn-down and heartsick, as frayed as the cuffs of his ever-dirtier suit. Despite the unqualified faith of his rapscallion gang, and the troubadour who sings songs about him like he’s a folk hero, every new find seems to take more out of him, leaving him stubbly and surly and scowling – imagine an antiheroic Indiana Jones as played by Elliott Gould as written by TS Eliot. (O’Connor’s performance is one of the film’s many miracles in making such an improbable character feel real). 

Only in Flora’s delighted presence does he relax and smile – “Arthur, my only friend!” she calls him – perhaps because, while he’s lying to her about her daughter Benjamina’s fate, he can lie to himself too. But it’s also at Flora’s that he meets Italia (Carol Duarte), Flora’s “tone-deaf” singing student, who is daffy and gorgeous in a Miranda July sort of way and who reminds Arthur of the pleasures of topside life, despite the downward lure of dreams and visions in which Benjamina’s red dress unravels and the dead ask him for all their stuff back.

No description of what happens in La Chimera can adequately convey what happens in La Chimera, which feels like watching an occurrence of ancient magic, from the point of view of the spell. Arthur is the protagonist and his gradual awakening to the fact that his lifestyle is built on a desecration of the very things he loves, gives the film its structure. But Rohrwacher’s real story here – splitting the difference between the earthiness of The Wonders (2014) and the whimsicality of Happy as Lazzaro (2018) (and surpassing them both in vivid strangeness) – is the story of the Tuscan ground and the beautiful secrets that sleep beneath our feet. 

In a transcendent sequence – knowingly modelled on the catacombs scene in Fellini’s Roma (1972) but further removing the human element – Arthur discovers his biggest find yet, buried incongruously in the shadow of a massive power plant. It is a long-forgotten shrine that has lain undisturbed in glimmering blackness for millennia. Before Arthur and his raiders of the lost dark enter from above, Rohrwacher breaks a rule: She grants us a privileged look inside, at the silent grace of its white marble statue, at the humble votive offerings left by the pre-Christian devout and at the brightly-painted frescoes of birds and animals that adorn the walls. The moment the gang breaks through, a rush of air steals the colour from the murals. Not even Arthur has seen what we have, though he implicitly understands the tragic paradox. So many inestimable treasures that we look upon with awe have lost half their beauty to the looking. 

Rohrwacher is fascinated by the ransacked archaeology of Arthur’s psyche. He simultaneously worships history, preserving a little cache of artefacts of no value to anyone but himself, while also destroying it for money. So perhaps the only perfectly ironic ending is for him to become a part of history. Through the songs being sung about his exploits. Through the way his story grows within the crevices of Italy’s long, striated past. And through La Chimera itself, a joyous, masterful work of folk magic that plays like a discovery dug up from the ground where it has been for centuries, just waiting, in a rebellious reversal of that tragic shrine scene, to burst into full bloom before the gaze of living eyes.

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