La Chimera is a transcendent film that blurs the boundaries of the ancient and the modern and recalls the greatest artists of Italian cinema. By Christos Tsiolkas.
Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera
Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera – about a group of tombaroli (graverobbers) who fossick for ancient Etruscan artefacts in Tuscany to sell illegally on the black market – is a work of continuing surprise and ebullience. As with Rohrwacher’s previous features, The Wonders (2014) and Happy As Lazzaro (2018), there is a hard-edged politics of class and place that informs the film. She focuses on the experiences of people whose connection to a peasant past is both tangible and precarious. Though her stories are set largely in rural landscapes, we are always conscious of the threat of hyperreal urbanisation and modernity just outside the frame.
Two characters are central to the film. We first encounter Arthur (Josh O’Connor) on a train. He is an Englishman who has just been released from prison. A chain-smoker, dressed in a dishevelled and grimy white linen suit, he is surly and rude to his fellow passengers and to the train’s conductor. Returning to the village where he now lives, he is equally dismissive of his fellow gang members.
Arthur only begins to show signs of empathy or affection when he visits the decaying villa of Flora (Isabella Rossellini), the mother of his girlfriend, Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello). Flora, whose brood of daughters mill around her in avid expectation of inheritance, is being looked after by a diffident young peasant woman, Italia (Carol Duarte), who is hiding the existence of her children from the watchful eyes of Flora and her daughters. Italia shares Arthur’s wariness of the world but her acerbic caution is far from misanthropic.
A tentative friendship unfolds between Arthur and Italia. These two outsiders are resolutely independent and share a relationship to the uncanny. For Arthur, this comes from a gift for divining, which is why he is the de facto leader of the tombaroli. Italia’s spirituality is unselfconscious, grounded in a respect for the sacred that separates the material world from that of the spirit. When she becomes aware of Arthur’s activities – his choice to use his mystical talents to sell off the grave-gifts of the Etruscan dead – she turns away from him. Italia makes no distinction between the past and the present. The dead, and the responsibilities we owe them, exist outside time.
Rohrwacher uses the plastic elements of cinema to blur the boundaries between the ancient, the peasant and the modern. The aspect ratio of the film changes to accommodate the shifts between memory and the real, the natural and the supernatural. At first, we might think the story is unfolding in the early 1980s, with deals being made in lira rather than euros. There seems to be a total absence of the digital world in the art design and in Hélène Louvart’s luminous, autumnal cinematography. Yet there are moments when this certainty is shaken: when we glimpse, for example, a poster for mobile phones.
Rohrwacher’s purpose is clear-headed: she wants us to share Italia’s preternatural sense of time. These shifting formal and conceptual elements have a comic ease, but Rohrwacher’s playfulness never undermines the moments of awe necessary in a film that is acutely sensitive to the many forms of reverence. When Arthur’s gang breaks into an undiscovered underground shrine containing an idol of an ancient goddess, and when he subsequently realises his encounters with the dead are present and real, the film reaches formal and emotional transcendence.
The grace with which Rohrwacher moves between the ethereal and the everyday recalls the poetry of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose films also explore how time and memory, history and the sacred, fold into each other. Yet her direction is much more phlegmatic. In interviews she has spoken of her love for Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951). One can clearly see its influence in La Chimera and in Happy As Lazzaro, in her resolute commitment to expressing the matter-of-fact, comic and trusting relationship that ordinary people have to the religious sublime.
Like De Sica, her films are populist in the best sense. Moments in La Chimera brought back memories of Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979), in Rohrwacher’s grasp of rural austerity and savagery. The delightful, funny play of the tombaroli also recalls Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953). There’s obviously an enormous debt too to Pier Paolo Pasolini, to that great director’s insistence that Marxism and the spiritual can be in communion.
Though Rohrwacher’s referencing and borrowing from such directors is conscious, it never feels derivative. This is because of the confidence of her vision and the clarity of her writing. She knows she can no longer ground her exploration of the transcendent in merely Christian ideals. The choice to seek it in the Etruscan – and therefore pre-Roman – past is part of her feminist exploration. That too determines her conceptualisation of Italia.
Earlier in the film, Flora is taken on a day trip to explore a derelict railway station. Italia is present to look after the matriarch. She overhears that the structure is abandoned and asks, “Who owns it?” When told no one does, that it is now public land and therefore belongs to everyone, Italia takes Flora at her word. Kicked out of her job, she and a group of mothers set it up as a commune. However, Rohrwacher’s feminist politics are complex. If the commune is an attempt by the working-class women to set up a truly collective and non-exploitative home for themselves, we can’t forget it was Flora’s privileged daughters who were instrumental in making Italia homeless in the first place.
The film loses focus and some of its energy once the graverobbers discover the shrine, and when they try to sell the idol to Spartaco, the agent who acts as a go-between for the tombaroli and their buyers. Spartaco is played by the director’s sister, Alba Rohrwacher. She has fun with the role, revelling in the veneer of piss-elegant poise she must display to the rich who use their wealth to pretend there is a difference between their venality and that of the graverobbers. But the scenes featuring Spartaco are among the weakest in the film and some of the staging is unconvincing.
A second gang is also introduced here, and their relationship to the illegal trade is undefined and confusing. The set-ups are muddled, as if Rohrwacher couldn’t solve the question of how to return Arthur to his illegal trade. I think she has neither the flair for nor an interest in straightforward genre conventions, and so when they intrude into her storytelling the filmmaking is uninvolving.
Yet the ending quashed my doubts. Arthur has learnt from Italia that the miraculous is still possible. The exquisite sympathy of the final moments is profoundly moving.
There is joy in so much of this film, coming in large measure from the roles of O’Connor and Duarte. They both give brave performances, unafraid to reveal the hostility and abrasiveness of their respective characters. O’Connor is superb, making us respond to both Arthur’s virility and his vulnerability. I haven’t seen Duarte in films before, but she too manages to be a vital presence throughout. You miss her when she isn’t in a scene. There’s a lovely moment when Italia finally relaxes, lets go of her frostiness, and dances at a carnival. It’s sensuous and funny – I thought of Sophia Loren in De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) and Anna Magnani in Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962). From her work in La Chimera alone, Duarte belongs with the goddesses.
It’s a boon to see Rossellini again on the big screen, and in a role that makes full use of her warmth and regal elegance as an actor. Ramona Fiorini, Lou Roy-Lecollinet and Vincenzo Nemolato also give radiant performances.
La Chimera’s fable-like structure is romantic but never becomes sappy. When Pasolini imagined the preclassical, in his staggering adaptations of Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), he confronted us with the strangeness of the past. We could only understand its brutality through allegory, and even then but dimly. For Rohrwacher, a thread of shared humanity still connects us to the ancients, but her utopianism is tempered by pragmatism. Her characters fail and disappoint but failure doesn’t preclude them from political or spiritual deliverance. She is indeed an heir of De Sica: she too shares in his wondrous humanity. La Chimera is magical.
La Chimera is showing at the 2023 St Ali Italian Film Festival, from September 19 to October 18 in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Byron Bay.
Venues throughout Ngambri and Ngunnawal Country/Canberra, until October 15
CULTURE Yellamundie Festival 2023
Moogahlin Performing Arts, Gadigal Country/Sydney, September 18-30
FESTIVAL Junction Arts Festival
Venues throughout kanamaluka/Launceston, September 20-24
THEATRE The Dictionary of Lost Words
Dunstan Playhouse, Kaurna Country/Adelaide, September 22-October 14
VISUAL ART The Lester Prize 2023
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Whadjuk Noongar Country/Perth, September 22–November 26
INSTALLTION Electric Kingdom
Birrarung Marr, Naarm/Melbourne, until September 17
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "Periodic fable".
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