Alice Rohrwacher’s La chimera

Josh O’Connor in Alice Rohrwacher’s La chimera (2023)

After charming Disney+ subscribers last Christmas with her holiday-themed short Le pupille—and scoring her first Oscar nomination—Alice Rohrwacher completed what her producer, Carlo Cresto Dina, calls her “trilogy on Italian identity.” In La chimera, the Italy of the 1980s is first seen through the eyes of Arthur (Josh O’Connor), an English archeologist in a crumpled cream-colored suit with a gift for locating Etruscan tombs with a dousing rod.

Just sprung from jail, Arthur returns to Tuscany, the home of his long-lost love, Beniamina (played by Yile Vianello when she appears in his dreams), and her mother, Flora (Isabella Rossellini), a wheelchair-bound aristocrat. Flora’s live-in maid and tone-deaf music student, Italia (Carol Duarte), catches Josh’s eye when he’s not out robbing graves with a band of fellow tombaroli.

“No description of what happens in La chimera can adequately convey what happens in La chimera, which feels like watching an occurrence of ancient magic, from the point of view of the spell,” writes Jessica Kiang for Sight and Sound. “Rohrwacher’s real story here—splitting the difference between the earthiness of The Wonders (2014) and the whimsicality of Happy as Lazzaro (2018) (and surpassing them both in vivid strangeness)—is the story of the Tuscan ground and the beautiful secrets that sleep beneath our feet.”

Writing for Cinema Scope, Jason Anderson sees Rohrwacher as an “eager revivalist of a quintessentially Italian cinematic mode that peaked with the comedies of Fellini and Monicelli in the ’50s and ’60s.” At Slant, though, Jake Cole suggests that “perhaps the strongest point of reference are the films that Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet made in Italy in the early 1970s—works set in the ruins of amphitheaters and forums that bore silent witness to bloodshed that once engulfed now-tranquil countryside hills and meadows.” In La chimera, “the importance of time is seemingly felt by everyone, suggesting a great sinkhole beneath the feet of the film’s characters, who make note of the fact that even as they justify their looting as reclamation from an extinct people that one day they, too, may be looted by the civilization that takes their place.”

“Shot in a combination of 16 mm, Super 16 mm, and 35 mm by Hélène Louvart,” writes Mark Asch for Little White Lies,La chimera is fabulously tactile but also hyperreal, nostalgic, and cinematic enough to encompass whimsical undercranking, exposition delivered via folk ballad, a direct reference to Federico Fellini’s Roma, even the presence of Isabella Rossellini herself, gracing the movie with her mother’s face and her father’s name. Naturalistic dialogue, when revisited later in the film, takes on the circular, fated logic of a dream.” For Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot, there’s “a sense in which Rohrwacher lays on the local color a bit thick,” but “once the film’s main plotline locks into place—and recenters the fertile theme of archaeology as a form of profiteering—it’s enough to effectively tether and ground the director’s airier impulses.”

The Telegraph’s Tim Robey finds it “hard to think of a recent film which has doted this fondly on the face of its leading man.” Is Arthur “sampling death every time he ventures underground, trying it on for size, at least until he finds something to live for above the surface?” asks Guy Lodge in Variety. “Is trading in the currency of the past a way to distance himself from a lonesome present? Raffish and boyish at the same time—or switching between either mode as a cover for the other—O’Connor’s deft, droll performance implies such possibilities without sentimentalizing them.”

“Bringing all her natural warmth, humor and spirit to the role,” Rossellini “makes Flora a dotty eccentric but also sharp as a tack,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. “She seems to believe her beloved Beniamina will come back, despite the insistence to the contrary of her gaggle of four remaining daughters—hilariously meddlesome, predatory, and all talking at once. Arthur, on the other hand, never tries to disabuse Flora of the idea, because on some level, he shares it.”

La chimera screens once more this evening in New York, and then tomorrow and Monday in Chicago. Further down the calendar, there’ll be showings at AFI Fest in Los Angeles, the Indie Memphis Film Festival, and the Denver Film Festival.

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