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Alice Rohrwacher makes films like no other. Her extraordinary work ventures into Italy’s labyrinthine past through fascinating pocket communities, endangered races that seem suspended in time. In The wonders, was a family of beekeepers, like that of the director; In Happy as Lazarus, they were isolated sharecroppers kept in feudal obscurity by exploiting landowners; and in the invigorating strange and lyrical The Chimerais a messy band of grave robbersillegal grave robbers who dig up Etruscan relics and make money by selling those antiquities 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 Tuscany and Umbria regions where Rohrwacher was born and raised — on 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 that extends into contemporary life. That temporal duality, as in the previous films, informs the enveloping sense of place. Rohrwacher makes films that you immerse yourself in rather than dispassionately watching, taking time to establish the environment as his characters and his stories reveal themselves in layers.
Place: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Launch: Josh O’Connor, Carol Duarte, Isabella Rossellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Vincenzo Nemolato
Director-writer: Alice Rohrwacher
2 hours and 10 minutes
The title refers to unattainable dreams and illusory promises, which for these looters of history is the prospect of enriching themselves with an important discovery that will prepare them for life. The chimera of the English Arthur (Josh O’Connor) is Beniamina, the woman loved and lost, who haunts her dreams. Grave robbers regard Arthur as something of a mystic, able to locate fruitful spots to dig with a forked tree branch that serves as a diviner’s rod, the strength of each find sapping his strength.
It’s a wonderful part for the talented O’Connor, who got his breakthrough in 2017 in Francis Lee’s instant queer classic, God’s countryand has made adventurous choices ever since.
Dressed for much of the film in a creased, dirty, cream-coloured linen suit, like a gentleman archaeologist or a ruined continental traveler, Arthur lives among the plants and trees in a makeshift shack on the ancient city walls. That unheated house no doubt contributed to the chronic cough he developed. He’s comfortable among the pack of grave robbers, but also stuck in his own head, fixated less on the wealth that lies underground than on the mythological entrance to the afterlife, where he might reconnect with Beniamina.
Arthur is introduced on a train – fellow passengers, an illegal salesman and a train conductor will figure in a disturbing interlude later – returning from no one knows where and bound for a place somewhere around Riparbella in Tuscany. It is there that Flora (Isabella Rossellini), Beniamina’s physically frail but still formidable mother, lives in a dilapidated villa with an unpaid housekeeper, Italia (Carol Duarte), who believes she is working in exchange for singing lessons even though the lady admits freely to be out of tune.
Duarte, one of Karim Aïnouz’s discoveries Invisible life, has an understated grasp of daffy comedy, playing a delightful character shrewd enough to keep secrets but selfless in her main deceit. The small moments in which Italia records her misadventures with domestic ironing are priceless.
In a film imbued with nods not only to ghosts rooted in history, but to the illustrious past of Italian cinema – particularly with Pasolini, but also the early Fellini, Ermanno Olmi and the Taviani brothers, among others – Rossellini’s presence seems particularly significant.
Bringing all of her natural warmth, humor and wit to the role, she makes Flora a quirky eccentric but also sharp as a tack. She seems to believe that her beloved Beniamina will return, despite the insistence otherwise by her pack of four remaining daughters: hilarious, predatory and all talking at the same time. Arthur, on the other hand, never tries to free Flora from the idea of her, because on some level he shares it.
(After Rossellini’s heartbreaking vocal work Marcel the shell with shoes, The Chimera once again raises the eternal question: why don’t we see this radiant queen in the movies anymore?)
The mutual affection of Flora and the mournful Englishman is as essential to the heart of the film as Arthur’s melancholy longing for Beniamina or his hesitant romantic attachment to Italy. This falters at first when she discovers what Arthur and his cohorts do at night and recoils in superstitious horror that they disturb the spirits of the dead.
Arthur spends time with the grave robbers participating in the town’s carnival festivities, in which most of the men of the group dress flamboyantly, driving a tractor along the narrow streets in parade, accompanied by a brass band. (That sequence represents another link to the past.) Or they sing around a campfire or drink in a bar where a storytellerliterally a storyteller, he offers a vigorous rendition of a ballad that illustrates the colorful story and place of grave robbers in the scheme of things.
Their nocturnal raids generally produce small artifacts such as painted pottery and statuettes, deposited in the tombs of ordinary citizens as gifts to the deceased, to save their souls. These items fetch a modest price off the fence they deal with through middlemen, known as Spartacus, and even that requires some haggling. But one night on the coastal shores, in the shadow of industrial chimneys, Arthur’s intuitive powers lead them to a huge find, a fifth-century sacred shrine containing treasures of incalculable value, which slip through their fingers even before they can grasp them.
The grave robbers’ efforts to reclaim their bounty cause the narrative to pivot almost into thriller territory, which isn’t quite in keeping with the overarching story. But it has a dual purpose. It marks Rohrwacher’s characteristic turn from a rustic world existing at an unidentifiable point in the 20th century to a colder and less innocent time, which in this film is the early 1980s. It also allows for the introduction of an elusive character played with distasteful taste by the director’s sister and regular collaborator, Alba Rohrwacher.
Any change of tone seems legitimate given the attractive ease, the transgressive whimsy with which the director (helped here by editor Nelly Quettier) shapes her stories. Rohrwacher injects notes of silent comedy using quick, jittery movements into the scenes with the grave robbers being chased by carabinieri and reverses frames to alter our perspective. She becomes creative by mixing musical choices, from Monteverdi and Mozart to the electro-pop of Kraftwerk and the Italian rock of Franco Battiato and Vasco Rossi.
The director also manipulates the plot, mixing DP Hélène Louvart’s mesmerizing images between different film stocks and aspect ratios. There is a dazed dreamlike beauty in intermittent stretches of the film that suggest a transition between two worlds.
That state of suspension resonates most intensely in O’Connor’s touching interpretation, fluctuating 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 in it is the big mystery of the film.
One of the key themes The Chimera consider is who owns the past. Unlike fearsome Italy, grave robbers believe that anything left behind is fair game, viewing the Etruscans as naive in thinking that treasures so easily unearthed would remain in place. But ownership even in the present proves to be a tenuous thing as we see evidence that grave robbers are just humble links in a chain. That chain becomes much more profitable at the next level, making them cheap labor in a market driven by greed.
The meditation on who can reclaim the past continues beyond the grave robbers in a beautiful interlude that directly impacts the film’s conclusion. During an excursion to the once-grand but long-abandoned train station of Riparbella, Italia asks who it belongs to. With a wise and wistful look in her eyes, Flora tells her about everyone and no one.