‘La Chimera’ Review: Another Stunning and Lyrical Countryside Parable From Alice Rohrwacher

Cannes 2023: One of the best films in this year’s competition contemplates time and existence by excavating the past

Josh O'Connor, in La Chimera
Josh O'Connor, in La Chimera

Hidden cinematic treasures are buried everywhere in Cannes. But even the most tireless hunters and diggers amongst us couldn’t have predicted that this year’s finest archeology film would not be found in James Mangold’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” but in Alice Rohrwacher’s whimsically ethereal tapestry of romance, history and afterlife, “La Chimera.”

A rich and humorous folk tale overflowing with cultural details, aesthetic pleasures and the effervescent musicality of the Italian language, Rohrwacher’s melancholically grainy pastoral fable isn’t exactly about professional archeology, to be perfectly clear. But what some of her characters—the ancient-grave-raiding collective “tombaroli,” led by Josh O’Connor’s (“The Crown”) enigmatic Arthur—lack in bona fide archeological expertise, they make up for with rebellion and a reckless sense of aspiration.

Violating the bottomless sacred burial grounds of their little Italian village and stealing historical wonders the Etruscan people have taken to their grave, the clandestine tombaroli are after a form of easy living: pocketing invaluable artifacts from the holy tombs that seem to be everywhere beneath their feet and slyly cashing in to sustain their modest living.

Some readings suggest that these real-life looters also aim to stick it to the man in modern Italy (they at least used to back in the ’80s, when the film is set), avoiding conventional work through their unearned gains that they felt entitled to. But being used and abused by the haughty art market ecosystem in return, are they really above the capitalist construct? Rohrwacher gently and humorously ponders this class-consciousness in “La Chimera,” a title that roughly translates into “pie in the sky.”

We meet O’Connor’s Englishman Arthur not during one such illegal excavation, but on a train ride, deep into his dream and opaque visions of his long-lost, unattainable love, Beniamina. The conductor looks at him funny when Arthur hands him an unusual looking ticket, noticed at once by his playfully bickering fellow passengers. Writer-director Rohrwacher never exactly spells it out, but the clues are there for us to spot that he’s no ordinary traveler, not when the echoes of a past crime follow him on the tracks.

Rohrwacher has always been a keen observer and artful portrayer of eyes; a soulful miner of the many meanings they mirror and reflect. That much we know from her timeless parable “Happy as Lazzaro” (a Cannes prize winner) with Adriano Tardiolo’s gleamingly innocent pupils, and last year’s mischevious Oscar-nominated short, “Le Pupille (The Pupils),” a double-entendre title that wears Rohrwacher’s gaze-y preoccupations on its sleeve. While the heroes of these films exhume incorruptible purity from their wide-set eyes, Arthur’s suggest something else. Perhaps a kind of weariness, a sense of darkness concealed by his defiantly light-colored, gentlemanly linen suits that he’s attired in despite his dirt-underneath-nails grit.

It is perhaps thanks to that mistiness of spirit that Arthur is adorned with the most unusual of gifts: the ability to pinpoint the exact location of the tombs down below. In that regard, he seems less like your average living person and more like a fleeting commuter between pairs of disparate worlds. Not only between Italy and his own motherland, but also various abstract ones Rohrwacher perennially explores in her work: the alive and the deceased, the permanent and the ethereal, the radiant and the shadowy, the chipper and the gloomy, the list goes on…

Arthur is quick to notice the frequently daydreaming and amusingly distracted student Italia (a luminous Carol Duarte) upon returning to the charmingly dilapidated country home of Flora (the peerless Isabella Rossellini), a matriarch who delightfully frets over Arthur. Through Neo-Realist depictions of country life and traditionally buzzy domestic rhythms (both are Rohrwacher staples), the filmmaker sees to it that these two melancholic and displaced souls softly enmesh. But could there be a genuine future for him with this unadulterated live-in Cinderella when Arthur has one foot in the grave, the other in the afterlife?

Strolling into Alice Rohrwacher’s world of dichotomies is a reliably one-of-a-kind experience, as much visually and ideologically informed by the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900” in their pastoral vistas and social-conscious cultural touch points, as they are by a sprinkling of fairy dust. Expect to see those dualities everywhere in the lush “La Chimera,” including in its unnamed town, eternalized by its ghosts and layers of history on the one side, and condemned to death by a contaminating power plant that casts a shadow over it on the other.

Also expect recurrently glistening baroque tracks from this major yet humble marvel, a parade of understated but stunningly realized ‘80s costuming by Loredana Buscemi and a juicy performance as a ruthless art curator from Alice’s sister Alba Rohrwacher, a vision in a sunshine-yellow frock this reviewer will forever covet.

Soothingly kissed by Rohrwacher’s frequent collaborator Hélène Louvart’s tender cinematography that blends 35mm and Super 16 film with purpose (and even wittily plays with different action speeds you just might giggle along), “La Chimera” is a pictorial delight to luxuriate in, as it is a philosophical wonder on the unknowability of time. The earth belongs to the past and the future, this miracle of a film quietly suggests. We just live in it.

Check out TheWrap’s Cannes magazine here and all of our Cannes 2023 coverage here.