A Chimera is something one tries to achieve but alas, never manages to find. It is the heart and soul of a quest in life, in different ways, for the cast of characters in writer/director Alice Rohrwacher’s beautiful new film La Chimera premiering today as one of the last entries in competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It also happens to be one of the best.
Rohrwacher, who has won prizes at Cannes for two previous films, 2014’s The Wonders (Grand Prix) and 2018’s Happy As Lazaro (Screenplay) and was nominated for an Oscar this year for her live action short Le Pupille, , is back with what I think is her best film yet, an adventure, an ethereal and spirtual journey, a love story even on different levels, and a heist movie like no other. The latter refers to the center of action here as it is set in the 1980’s and deals with Italy’s notorious Tombaroli, a group of grave robbers who aim to live the easy life by taking from the dead, as it were, and digging up and invading cemeteries and tombs to steal treasures from bygone eras thousands of years old, mostly Etruscan, and sell them off to fences, notably here the mystery person known only as Spartaco.
The film begins as we meet Arthur (Josh O’Connor) riding a train into Italy, a foreigner possibly from the UK as he is referred to as “the Englishman” by a couple of characters. His volatile personality is also quickly revealed as he lashes out at an employee and freaks out other passengers. Nevertheless he is on a mission, a spirtual one we later realize as he sets out to perhaps discover a key to the afterlife so he can reunite with his true love, Beniamina who tragically died. His unique talents for excavating the past in other ways leads to his association with the Tombaroli, a ragtag group of grave robbers who make him their leader as he has a way with a divining rod like no other. He isn’t really one them but in his current state he helps the cause, not necessarily looking for riches, but answers. There is also his visit to the delapidated mansion, near a broken down railroad, where Flora (Isabella Rossellini) lives, an older woman who is mother to several daughters, one of whom was Benimina whom she firmly believes is coming home and will be there soon. She welcomes Arthur who also meets Italia (Carol Duarte), the delightful if simple young woman who is basically treated as a servant by Flora. She connects with Arthur who finds someone new to whom he is attracted.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, Arthur and the other Tombarolas stage a grave robbery, picking up several Etruscan vases and antiques. However when they fence them their unseen buyer Spartaco declares them meaningless, likely the ordinary treasures of a very poor family. Still they collect some cold hard cash to split up among them. The big scene, sensationally filmed by Rohrwacher, however is when the gang which includes a woman named Florinda, plus Arthur and his date, Italia head to a nighttime swim at the ocean which also turns out to be by a cemetery, and this is where things go very wrong between him and Italia as she discovers to her horror he is a grave robber. She fleas, threatening to tell the police, but he has bigger fish to fry as his divining rod leads to their golden find, a tomb with untold treasures including the beautiful and perfectly preserved statue of a woman. Along with whatever else they can grab, with plans to return with the van to store it all, they cut off the statue’s head just as cops show up. The chase is on as they have to get out of there. What happens next will reveal the identity of Spartaco, and a new and most important path for Arthur.
O’Connor, an Emmy winner for The Crown, is brilliant here performing his entire role in perfect Italian (even Burt Lancaster had to be dubbed in Visconti’s The Leopard) , something he learned upon getting the part. Rossellini has turned into a great character actress and is splendid here, as is the delightful Brazilian actress Duarte as Italia. The director’s famous acting sibling Alba Rohrwacher turns up very effectively in a key role later on, and the rest of the supporting cast including Vincenzo Nemolato and the team of Tombarolas are excellent including a troubador who explains the ways of the Tombaroli in song.
Dealing with the past is a theme that clearly intrigues Rohrwacher, and she has taken it to new, and ever changing levels with La Chimera , a treasure itself and a remarkable entry into an ever-impressive and growing filmography.
Title: La Chimera
Festival: Cannes (in competition)
Director/ Screenplay: Alice Rohrwacher
Cast: Josh O’Connor, Isabella Rossellini, Carol Duarte, Alba Rohrwacher, Vincenzo Nemolato
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Sales Agent: The Match Factory