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Film review: ‘La Chimera’ unearths drama, romance through dreamlike film sequences

Cigarette in mouth, Josh O’Connor sits at a desk. O’Connor stars as Arthur, a tomb robber searching for artifacts across 1980s Tuscany, in “La Chimera.” (Courtesy of Simona Pampaollona)

“La Chimera”

Directed by Alice Rohrwacher 

Neon

March 29

By Natalie Agnew

March 29, 2024 2:21 p.m.

This post was updated March 31 at 9:47 p.m.

As an archaeological excavation, “La Chimera” digs up a spellbindingly poignant fantasy.

The rollicking romantic drama released in select theaters Friday after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher, the Italian film trails British archaeologist Arthur’s (Josh O’Connor) tomb-robbing exploits across 1980s rural Tuscany. For a story entranced with death, “La Chimera” brims with palpable vitality in its thrilling performances and otherworldly construction, rendering an utterly self-contained picture.

From the first sun-soaked dreamlike frame, the audience is engulfed in the pages of a fully realized, darkly comedic fairytale it won’t want to wake up from. Rohrwacher’s script winds through roads of storyline at a wonderfully restrained speed, unburdened by the baggage of unnecessary exposition. Intertwining threads of bittersweet family drama, the first glance of romance, an impossible heist and boisterous comedy, every tonal shift blends in symbiotic harmony rather than straying off key.

The camera lens is a constant companion on the odyssey of the grief-stunted tomb raider Arthur, with O’Connor conducting the film through his naturally magnetic performance. Resembling an apparition, the “The Crown” actor habitually dons a dusty beige suit and a morose temperament that permeates the screen with the deep triangular set of his brow. A man of few words, he is an inscrutable vessel searching for artifacts in contrast to the animated troupe of characters decorating the Tuscan countryside.

(Courtesy of Ad Vitam Distribution)
Josh O’Connor holds a fossil in “La Chimera.” The “The Crown” actor plays the British archaeologist Arthur in the Italian drama film. (Courtesy of Ad Vitam Distribution)

Fresh off the train from his prison release, Arthur reunites with Flora, the mother of his lost and presumed dead fiance Beniamina, her student and unofficial maid Italia, and his crew of grave-robbing tombaroli. The iconic Isabella Rossellini portrays the harshly warm Flora, and Carol Duarte plays Italia as a moral center and romantic foil to Arthur. Enumerable distinctive supporting performances inject the village with a concrete vibrancy that is only matched by Rohrwacher’s storytelling flair.

Fluent in the visual language of magical realism, “La Chimera” masterfully merges the realms of dreams and reality as Arthur searches for a “passage to the afterlife.” Dream sequences are carefully interspersed throughout in the form of cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s 16mm film and 4:3 aspect ratio, resembling the blur of an old film camera. Effectively, these scenes are perceptibly separated from the majority of the film’s modern super 16mm widescreen format. The frame is a thematic mirror, turning upside down to highlight when Arthur uncannily stumbles across a tomb to be plundered. His longing is the tangible red string, a symbol of fate haunting his visions, tethering him to Beniamina or certain death.

Dusting off found artifacts, the picture colors a tender historical portrait by incorporating outdated film techniques into its present. There are healthy servings of physical comedy reminiscent of the silent film era, with touches such as Arthur storming around toting a cumbersome tree branch or repeatedly dodging out of frame in a group photo. In a particularly entertaining scene, a singer strums a guitar detailing the legend of the tombaroli over a montage of the gang running from the police with comically sped-up frame rates, punctuated by a tinkling triangle. Despite humorous elements, the film explores the sorrowful degradation of art, history and lost souls for a price.

(Courtesy of Neon)
The ensemble of “La Chimera” stares ahead with shocked expressions. Written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher, the dreamlike drama released in select theaters Friday. (Courtesy of Neon)

Rohrwacher returns to similar themes of commercial exploitation found in her 2018 feature, “Happy as Lazzaro.” However, in “La Chimera,” her critiques of capitalism ring loudest at their most subtle, with more overt forays into societal appraisal giving way to cliche. During the climax, a yellow-dressed villainess gives an obtusely evil soliloquy about art selling, followed by a verbal boxing match that devolves into eye-roll-worthy animal noises. But these latter act missteps are artfully steered into the film’s staggering final moments.

Echoing mythology, Arthur’s tale has the poetic ending of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the credits roll in the 130th minute, there is breath-stealing silence, as if the viewer unearthed a tomb-encased figurine unfit for the eyes of the living. Rohrwacher engraves her heartbreaking signature in the conclusion without a gratuitously definitive exclamation point.

In its material mirage, “La Chimera” contains magic even after the spell is broken.

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Natalie Agnew
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