Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 16th, 2023
La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher, 2023) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera is, at its most simple, a prolonged cinematic meditation on grief. Fortunately for the viewer, that construct is wrapped in an intriguingly lyrical plot about a group of graverobbers and their misadventures. The result is a charming and poignant tale in which every unique moment bursts forth from the vivid imagination of its creator. Sui generis does not come close to describing the net effect.
Which is all to the good, given how much things don’t quite hold together, narratively. If one leans into the magical realism of the fable, then the need for dramatic logic fades from consideration. Instead, we are tempted to just give in to the experience and allow Rohrwacher (Le Pupille) to sweep us off our feet. Her enchanting aesthetic has that kind of power.
Josh O’Connor (Mothering Sunday) stars as Arthur, an Englishman somehow adrift in central Italy. When we first encounter him, on a train, he is on his way back from prison, where he served a term for the aforementioned robbing of graves. Not just any, to be fair, but older ones from the Etruscan period. He and his friends/colleagues dig up the goods and then sell them to a mysterious fencer named Spartaco. On the last job, Arthur was the one nabbed.
Upon his return, he visits with Flora (Isabella Rossellini, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On). His connection to her is not initially clear, but soon we understand that she is mother to the deceased Beniamina, Arthur’s love, whom she calls “missing” rather than dead. He knows the facts, but enjoys the fellowship, nonetheless.
Soon, he is back in the company of thieves, a genial bunch who act as surrogate family. They especially love Arthur because of his talent, or “chimera,” which allows him to detect valuable artifacts below ground. A new person has her eye on him, though: Italia (Carol Duarte, Invisible Life), Flora’s maid and, ostensibly, music student (though this is mainly a conceit to keep Flora from feeling obligated to pay her). Italia may not know the full truth about Arthur and his gang, but she has her own secrets, too.
Rohrwacher keeps the many different parts and characters in fluid motion, refusing to adhere to the conventions of narrative storytelling (though there is most definitely a clear through line). Mixing magical realism with deep critiques of societal inequities—in the grand tradition of her Italian forebears De Sica, Fellini, and Pasolini—she weaves her intriguing tale of love lost and almost re-found via a series of beguiling vignettes that only at the end turn tragic. And even then that misfortune is filtered through whimsy.
The final result is a delightful journey into a series of engaging moments that all lead to a sad, if satisfying, conclusion. Not all elements are here created equal, and the plot sometimes weaves in and out of perfect cohesion, but what proves most appealing is that very imperfection, the jagged edges scratching into our consciousness and remaining there long afterwards. I’ll take something rough and unusual over smooth and ordinary any day.
[La Chimera just had its North American premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), as part of the Special Presentations Programme.]