Review: La Chimera

With La Chimera, Alice Rohrwacher blends romance with tragedy and comedy with drama, creating a singular work of genre-defying magical realism. Her film exemplifies its title with a slippery, dreamlike quality that always feels just a little out of reach if you try to grasp it too eagerly or too quickly. Instead, you should let La Chimera and its delicate touch wash over you in the moment and then dwell on it for days afterward. 

Its protagonist, Arthur (Josh O’Connor), is living in the past himself, continuing to fixate on his lost love, Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello). He has just been released from prison, and he soon falls back in with the motley crew of grave robbers, or “tombaroli,” who were his friends and accomplices before his stint behind bars. Though they help with the actual digging, Arthur’s gift at dowsing means he is the only one in the group who can locate the buried tombs of the Etruscans, caches filled with pottery, frescoes, and other artifacts that will fetch high prices from antiquities dealers who obscure their true provenance. Arthur has the gift of unearthing what has been lost for ages, but he can’t find the one thing he wants most: Beniamina. 

La Chimera is populated by a variety of characters with threads connecting them. Arthur is an Englishman living in Italy, a man who fumbles with the language and is immediately recognized as “other” by those he meets. He wears suits, giving him an air of respectability, but his trousers are often covered in dirt and he receives complaints about his body odor. He is the subject of songs of his exploits by the locals, who offer their insights into his wild story and strange gift. Meanwhile, his fellow tombaroli are a Fellini-esque band of misfits who look like a circus troupe as they shamble after him in his search — even though they’re ultimately looking for different things in their quests. He makes regular visits to Beniamina’s mother, Flora (Isabella Rossellini), who lives in a mansion and so has many daughters that their family seems like something out of a fable. Despite her aristocratic background, Flora is cash-poor, but she offers voice lessons to tone-deaf Italia (Carol Duarte) in exchange for her doing housework.

As in her previous films, Rohrwacher takes a playful approach, even as she covers matters as serious as death and class structures. La Chimera is especially rich in its handling of the economy around grave robbing and its fruits. Some people on-screen are rightly appalled by the actions of the tombaroli, but the petty criminals are neither the source of the problem nor the primary beneficiaries of the wealth created by it. There’s the question of who owns these objects — everyone or no one — and what that means for Italy and its citizens. Arthur and his gang scrape by, while the middlemen and upper-class collectors perpetuate the cycle. “The tombaroli are just a drop in the ocean,” a character sings, placing them as just one part of the systemic issue. Though La Chimera may comment on the rich’s exploitation of the lower class, as well as the nature of love and loss and the ephemeral versus the eternal, it never feels overly didactic or dour, thanks to Rohrwacher’s skill. 

The Happy as Lazarro director is a master of seemingly disparate tones, and though she’s indebted to Fellini (aren’t we all?), she is still forging her own path—and it’s a winding one full of enjoyable diversions. Though set in the 1980s, La Chimera has echoes of even earlier times. Arthur — whose name is so quintessentially British in its evocation of the legendary king — has songs sung about his exploits, like he’s the hero of an epic tale. Some action scenes bear the sped-up look of a silent comedy, bringing a welcome goofiness to the proceedings. With cinematographer Hélène Louvart, Rohrwacher uses a variety of film stocks to create a nostalgic appearance. Her view of Italy lacks the travel and gloss of, say, a Luca Guadagnino film. Instead, despite the fantastical elements, La Chimera is infused with realism. Dirt and age are everywhere; everything looks a little beat up, from the weathered faces to the crumbling walls. 

La Chimera is a curious, questioning experience, as pleasurably evasive as its title implies. Rohrwacher hasn’t made a maddeningly opaque film that frustrates the audience with unanswered questions; instead, she gently teases viewers with a movie that requires equal parts of their intellect and soul. Sure, La Chimera exists to be thought about, but it’s also there to be felt.

“La Chimera” is in theaters Friday.

Kimber Myers is a freelance film and TV critic for 'The Los Angeles Times' and other outlets. Her day job is at a tech company in their content studio, and she has also worked at several entertainment-focused startups, building media partnerships, developing content marketing strategies, and arguing for consistent use of the serial comma in push notification copy.

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