Italian social realism heightened by myth and magic is a subgenre that has become Alice Rohrwacher’s stock in trade. For the first time, her leading man is English as Josh O’Connor switches Prince Charles’s finery in The Crown for a dirty cream suit to play Arthur, the wandering soul at the heart of her most emotionally wrought film to date. La Chimera, true to its title, is a hybrid beast that merges the earthly with the ethereal, illuminating the criminalised archaeological digs of the working class ‘tombaroli’ in 1980s Umbria while immersing us in the mental state of a man on the brink.
Arthur has a unique form of a genius. Armed with a divining rod he can identify the precise spots where Etruscan artefacts lie buried. These are excavated, in one case involving a tomb that leaves Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the dust. They are then sold onto a shady art dealer whose respectable front means that Arthur and his band of merry tombalari are the ones shouldering all of the risks.
In fact, we meet Arthur on the other side of jail time, as he takes the train to Tuscany. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart uses beautiful bleached colours and a vignetted frame to create the nostalgia of a postcard from a lost time. We are introduced in flashback to Beniamina, an old flame whose fate is a mystery but whose memory still burns brightly for Arthur.
O’Connor is sublime, alternately charming and aggressive, and indifferent to reactions to his volatile behaviour. Local girls flirt with him until they witness him flying at the throat of a man who mocked him. He takes up residence with Beniamina’s acid-tongued mother Flora (Isabella Rosselini), who runs a household of women. Among them is Italia (Carol Duarte), a tone-deaf singing student, and the only one with the power to spark Arthur’s interest in the present.
One tomb raid leaves Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the dust
Rohrwacher shoots on multiple film formats (35mm, 16mm and Super 16) to build a boisterous working-class world filled with communal living, fiestas and scarpering from the police. Although essential to the archaeological plunder, Arthur is in a permanent state of emotional remove.
In his reveries of Beniamina, she repeatedly appears to be following a red thread that has come loose from a wool dress. Rohrwacher weaves this thread in and out of the more grounded storylines with the most exquisite even-handedness, evoking Greek mythology while creating her own legend. Like Theseus in the maze, Arthur is following a thread to meet his destiny.
La Chimera premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.