THE STORY – Everyone has their own Chimera, something they try to achieve but never manage to find. For the band of tombaroli, thieves of ancient grave goods and archaeological wonders, the Chimera means redemption from work and the dream of easy wealth. For Arthur, the Chimera looks like the woman he lost, Beniamina. To find her, Arthur challenges the invisible, searches everywhere, goes inside the earth – in search of the door to the afterlife of which myths speak. In an adventurous journey between the living and the dead, between forests and cities, between celebrations and solitudes, the intertwined destinies of these characters unfold, all in search of the Chimera.
THE CAST – Josh O’Connor, Isabella Rossellini, Carol Duarte & Alba Rohrwacher
THE TEAM – Alice Rohrwacher (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 130 Minutes
Following “The Wonders” (2014) and “Happy as Lazaro” (2018), Alice Rohrwacher returns to the Croisette in competition (her Oscar-nominated short film “Le Pupille” premiered at last year’s Cannes out of competition), hoping the third time’s a charm with a magical tale of stolen antiquities and lost love in “La Chimera.”
Arthur (“The Crown” Emmy Award-winning actor, Josh O’Connor) is the “Inglese,” a white-suited disheveled character who we first meet following a stint in prison that leaves him ripe enough to empty his train carriage of anyone who rubs him the wrong way. Played by O’Connor with grumpy charm (imagine Ralph Fiennes after being dragged through a hedge or seven), Arthur is returning to Riparbella in Tuscany, where he is the leader of a carnivalesque gang of grave robbers. He uses a divining rod to locate the Etruscan treasures when he isn’t being mothered by the mother of his departed love, a crumbling aristocrat played by Isabella Rossellini. Here she treats her music student Italia (Carol Duarte) like a maid and fawns over Arthur regardless of the fact that everyone else thinks the daughter that connects them is long gone and never coming back. Despite this, Arthur will go digging into the earth to search for that what matters most to him.
Rohrwacher has built up an impressive body of work that shares the same folklorish vision of Italy. It’s an Italy as seen from half in and half out – Rohrwacher’s own family is half German. It is made up of families, both real and improvised, and small medieval towns which half sink into the mud of their own history. There’s a timelessness to the world. The cars and constant smoking feel like the eighties; the commune nature of their band feels more like the sixties. Arthur time travels with flashbacks, and Helene Louvart’s camera has a Kodachrome palette of holiday snaps, somehow vivid and faded simultaneously. Rohrwacher throws dream sequences into the mix, sped-up silent comedy camerawork, direct addresses to the camera, and musical performances, all pushing the story forward and giving “La Chimera” a magical feeling only the cinematic art-form could accomplish.
But “story” is too big a word for what is unearthed in Rohrwacher’s latest. The film operates more as interrelated sketches, a Pilgrim’s Progress of episodes only loosely held together with a red thread of twine. This is a mood board rather than a movie, and though the film is shot through with stories, it has no reigning story as such, and as such, its journey is a meander, its characters wandering troubadours, its denouement simply an end. It also suffers from the perennial ghost of Italian cinema’s ongoing feast: Federico Fellini. The circus ringmaster still rules, and yet his followers can’t help but look like bedraggled jesters in his shadow.
This is a shame because there is much to enjoy in the film: not least of all, Josh O’Connor’s mournful, holy fool who lives in a limbo between grieving his former love and embracing a possible new relationship with Italia. Rossellini is likewise wonderful but also underused. The atmosphere and the freewheeling fun of the film are intoxicating, and maybe the evasive charms of “La Chimera” is the whole point – after all, it is called the chimera – but with her fourth film, Rohrwacher is too comfortable in an imaginative world of her own making to have everything come together to create a satisfying narrative experience.