‘La Chimera’ review: Alice Rohwacher’s most accomplished work to date digs into life, love, and grave-robbing | Cannes
The concept of a chimera, however colloquialized, still remains a bit too abstract to pin down. If one approaches Alice Rohrwacher’s fourth feature, La Chimera, with the demand to either explain or represent this idea in a more tangible way, they’d feel let down. But no matter whether you know the Italian director’s (still small) body of work well enough, or if you’re a newcomer coming to a film because of its male lead—The Crown’s Josh O’Connor plays a wayward Englishman named Arthur—it will still catch you off-guard. The film is at once a tale of love lost, an existential journey through past and present, a mythical parable, and a reflection of our consumerist society, but its multi-layered structure is paired with Hélène Louvart’s stunning visuals to assure delights that transcend the cinephile need for the European arthouse to be faultless.
Arthur is the protagonist of La Chimera, but the film starts with a first-person point of view sequence of a dream, where he is the dreamer. A reliable and untrustworthy narrator at once, he offers his visions to the audience in brilliant super-8 footage of a young woman, Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello, the lead from Rohrwacher’s debut, Heavenly Body), his chimera. We see his hands cupping her face, his “last woman’s face” – a defining gesture of the proper Romantic kind, and we already know the whole film will be a search for something inevitably lost. Beniamina appears episodically, either in his dreams or in conversation with her mother, the composed old lady Flora (Isabella Rossellini). But Flora is in denial: she refutes every attempt to speak of her daughter in the past tense, and her overjoyed reaction when she sees Arthur returning back from prison—no questions asked—suggests that everyone in this small Italian village in Tuscany is not only spatially, but also chronologically removed from the world.
Rohrwacher’s films to date have been exceptionally good at pairing two dichotomies: that of the premodern and modern Italian society, and the complex relationship between nature and culture, with evident religious undertones. But she as a director has never been too strict about these boundaries; on the contrary, the role religion and belief play in her work has been nuanced and far from dogmatic. When it’s revealed that Arthur’s way to make money includes desecrating Ancient Etruscan graves for contraband artifact deals, nobody bats an eye. With her signature compassionate look, Rohrwacher introduces us to a whole gang of grave-robbers, or tombaroli, whose vagrant lifestyle deserves at least a couple of accordion musical interludes. From then on, the film becomes more about the practicalities of the digs, guided by Arthur’s “gift,” which never fails to spot hidden treasures underground.
That very intuition of his is never questioned or conceptualized, but what’s implied here is that Arthur has a special relationship that binds him to both the living and the dead. Visually, this translates into a couple of beautifully executed sequences where the camera turns 180 degrees, but it never even borders on the gimmicky. Louvart, a master in affective camerawork, makes every object vibrate with the same illustrious current as the characters’ faces. This approach is telling: what’s alive and what is dead are in correspondence. The past is never really the past.
Alice Rohrwacher hasn’t gone home empty-handed since her sophomore feature The Wonders premiered in Cannes Competition in 2014, so it would be hard to imagine her new film, which hones in all her creative potential into something exceptional (even if more abstract than her previous films), not being awarded this time. La Chimera shows the Italian director at her best: the most liberated, most intuitive film thus far, with an even more promising future to come.
This review is from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival where La Chimera premiered in Competition. The film will be released in the U.S. by NEON.