La Chimera Review | Fallen Idols

by Andrew Parker

Rich in history and playful imagery, writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s latest feature, La Chimera, takes the form of grand folklore, complete with a handful of old school ballads to punctuate the whimsy. Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazarro, The Wonders, Oscar nominated short Le Pupille) builds La Chimera around tropes that comes straight out of Hollywood blockbusters and reappropriates them into something more dream-like, perplexing, and politically loaded. It’s history played out in a series of living dreams and nightmares that take the form of a classical, big screen adventure or heist movie. It’s an intoxicating, unique blend of form and material from one of cinema’s most inventive working directors.

Arthur (Josh O’Connor) is an English “archaeologist” who has just been sprung from prison for pilfering and profiting from buried Etruscan artefacts in 1980s  Italy. His band of like minded accomplices and a former employer (Alba Rohrwacher) are keen for Arthur to get back to his unusual method of work – discovering ancient burial sites and tunnels underground with the use of a dowsing stick – but all he wants is to be left alone. Arthur reconnects with the closest thing he has to a motherly figure in his life – an ailing, aging music teacher named Flora (Isabella Rossellini) – and through her he meets Italia (Carol Duarte), a housekeeper, single mother, and aspiring singer who’s looked down upon by Flora’s many catty daughters and grandchildren. Arthur finds some comfort in his budding relationship with Italia, but the call of big money and tomb raiding could prove too strong for him to resist.

Although La Chimera follows a clearly demarcated, character heavy plot, Rohrwacher isn’t afraid for her film to come across as observational, anecdotal, and episodic. Befitting of its mythical title, La Chimera has all the trappings of a grand, romantic sort of quest, full of pitfalls, temptations, love, and anguish. It’s never overblown or manipulative, and assuredly nothing like the Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider adventures in terms of spectacle and bombast, but in its better moments La Chimera flows like a classic novel that luxuriates in setting a scene. Rohrwacher presents a world in totality and sets the characters into motion immediately, learning more about their role in history and what their finds represent as La Chimera rolls along.

La Chimera takes place in a land of great history, but in one of the film’s few shortcomings, the context of what Arthur’s finds represent is often lacking in place of a more postmodern message. But what Rohrwacher’s lacks in terms of parsing ancient history is more than made up for with an abundance of personality and a clarity of thought and purpose. Rohrwacher’s script (written in collaboration with Marco Petternello and frequent colleague Carmela Covino) ensures that the most seemingly marginal of side characters has a distinct voice and world view, even if they only have a few lines of dialogue each. La Chimera is a film that deeply cares about people, in a world that doesn’t seem to care much about them in the slightest.

Arthur traffics in the “reappropriating” of relics that were meant to comfort the dead, not to be enjoyed by human eyes; objects that create a vicious circle for themselves. Such elaborate tombs were created to revere the wealthy and powerful after their deaths; a form of taking one’s wealth with them to the grave and further reasserting themselves as influential oligarchs. Naturally, in a world built upon worker exploitation and set during a the first major boom in the privately held fine arts market, these statues, trinkets, and architectural adornments take on a new meaning. Throughout history, the rich steal from the wealthy and impoverished alike, but it’s the latter – like Arthur and his crew of “tombaroli” – who have to take all the risk and do all the dirty work. The rich establish themselves further through owning historical artifacts, while the poor fight for the scraps. If Arthur doesn’t use his unique gifts to provide for those closest to him, someone else will swoop in and take the profit for themselves. It’s almost aspirational for those from lower classes to find treasure, because it allows them to reap the rewards given to them by other wealthy people. Steal from the rich, give to the rich, gain from the rich.

Although La Chimera has a pronounced anti-capitalist message, Rohrwacher is always careful to never fully depict Arthur and his actions as being right or wrong, or even deciding if the character is likeable or not. O’Connor plays the character like a weary, wistful, and somewhat greedy drifter whose numbness to the ethics of his job is starting to crack thanks to his connection to Italia. He has wonderful chemistry with Duarte – a shining light of warmth and goodness that emerges as the cast’s most luminous standout – and together they reshape the traditional arc of a “hero’s” journey into something much more granular, down to earth, and relatable. While the subtext of their relationship isn’t subtle (one of them is literally named Italia), it provides a perfect entry point into the topic of social inequality that Rohrwacher wants to discuss.

Rohrwacher also revels in a sense of style that keeps viewers on their toes without ever appearing showy or distracting. Sometimes she’ll speed up or slow down footage for comedic or dramatic impact, other’s she’ll literally flip the image on its head. Depending in the moment, Rohrwacher isn’t afraid of amping up the lighting or revelling in natural light, making her one of the few filmmakers who truly appreciates the nature of lighting a scene instead of sticking to a routine, rote aesthetic. When La Chimera wants to be playful and fantastical, Rohrwacher is keen to delight, and when it needs to be more taciturn and focus on the ennui of its characters, she’s not afraid to slow things down to a trickle.

It takes a considerable amount of time for La Chimera to come together, but once the stage is fully set and Rohrwacher has her characters and situations in motion, it becomes clear to patient viewers that they are in the hands of a masterful craftswoman. Rohrwacher’s ability to place the viewer into shoes and scenarios that are unique and specific is second to none. She’s a master at making the indecipherable feel routine and effortless, moving from sequence to sequence with pinpoint precision and utmost confidence in her vision. La Chimera is a major work from one of this era’s most major filmmakers.

La Chimera is now playing in select cinemas across Canada, including TIFF Lightbox in Toronto.

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