La Chimera

Alice Rohrwacher’s new film, LA CHIMERA, had its UK premiere at Glasgow Film Festival this year but feels like a film that has existed forever. Its odd tempo and mythic resonances make LA CHIMERA feel like a half-remembered story that you first heard years ago. The film’s surprising richness will bury itself in your mind in a way that finds you stumbling across it afterwards.

LA CHIMERA opens with Arthur (Josh O’Connor) on a train in Italy. He’s clearly an outsider: O’Connor strikes a tall, gangly figure, and his rumbled suit and Englishness mark him out to some local girls, as well as an irritating travelling salesman. Arthur is a cypher who we gradually learn is freshly released from jail, lives in a makeshift lean-to hut against the imposing stone walls of an Italian hill town, and dreams of Beniamina (Yile Vianello), a woman he’s waiting for. He visits the house of an old friend, Flora (Isabella Rossellini), and meets her student/maid, Italia (Carol Duarte), who offers to teach him the all-important hand gestures accompanying spoken Italian.

Josh O’Connor, perhaps best known for playing a young Prince Charles in two seasons of The Crown, deftly balances the performance of his enigmatic character, suggesting a boyish sense of humour and charm while acting the stolid Englishman to the exuberant Italians around him. Even later in the film, when who Arthur is becomes a little clearer, O’Connor never completely lets us in, suggesting the hidden depths of the character while never revealing too much about himself: similar to his role as Prince Charles, he’s withholding but in a way that is compellingly charming rather than annoying.

We gradually learn that Arthur is a rogue archaeologist with a preternatural gift for finding lost things through strange dowsing rituals. This has made him the de facto leader of a band of tombaroli who rob graves and raid tombs for Etruscan artefacts that they can sell. This is made clear in a folk song deep into the film, as if the story comes into focus when there’s a little rhyme to help the film itself remember the narrative, like someone telling an old story who struggles with the details.

Even as Arthur’s band of rogues and graverobbers embark on boyish adventures across the Italian countryside, unearthing tombs and evading the police, we start to wonder what Arthur could really be looking for. What Ariadne’s thread is he following to find these tombs and what thread is he actually hoping to follow? If not these artefacts, what is of real value to him? Rohrwacher never makes this explicit, instead relying on O’Connor’s enigmatic performance and the archaeological layering of the film to make us question what lies under it all. These elements give the film an odd tempo and an arrhythmic structure that feels strange while watching but seems to come together in retrospect after the credits have rolled.

We’re led to question Arthur’s quest even further when Italia discovers how Arthur makes a living and objects to the band’s sacrilegious unearthing of objects “not for human eyes”. A particularly powerful scene shows the moment a tomb’s seal is lifted, and oxygen enters the space, fundamentally changing all the objects and paintings within that have been sealed away for millennia. We’re left to wonder about the desecration that Arthur is leading and how he’s surrounding himself with the souls of those from whom he’s stolen. There’s a clear political subtext to Arthur, an Englishman named for a legendary king of Britain, stealing from the tombs of long-dead Europeans.

LA CHIMERA’s overall effect is that of a film rich with mythic resonances and allegories that feel both familiar and freshly discovered. Even while figures like Isabella Rossellini remind the viewer of film history and the film’s period setting evokes mid-20th century Italian cinema by blending Italian neorealism with magical realism, LA CHIMERA feels excitingly new and magical. It’s an astonishing effect for a magically impactful film.