New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: The sunny ‘La chimera’ finds tenderness in graverobbing

In this tale of stolen artifacts and found families, a long-lost love shines through.
“La Chimera” released in theaters on March 29, 2024. (Courtesy of NEON)

Who’s allowed to unravel lost memories and hidden traumas? In her latest film “La chimera,” Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher ponders this central question. Similar to her 2018 film “Happy as Lazzaro,” the director transports audiences to the ethereal landscapes of rural Italy. In this splendid, pensively sweet cinematic work, our protagonist Arthur (Josh O’Connor) has a gift for using a dowsing — a Y-shaped branch — to find forgotten or ignored graves mostly containing little ornaments and unsettling bones. But not long after Arthur and his group of grave robbers begin to dig again, Rohrwacher’s aim broadens, pulling the commodification of art, a lost love story and the communities Arthur inhabits under its loving, critical gaze. 

We first meet Arthur in transit, returning from jail after taking the blame for a previous expedition. Played by O’Connor with an attractive, shaggy sensibility, Arthur comes across as ambling and quiet; not immediately trustworthy but worth following around. His old friends chase him around the small Tuscany town where he resided, eventually convincing him to dig again — in part to sell their artifacts to a mystery art dealer. In a strong performance, O’Connor turns Arthur into a boyish, occasionally calculating figure by utilizing a lackadaisical speech pattern. 

More importantly, Arthur spends much of his free time thinking about his presumed-dead lost love Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello), visiting her charming mom Flora (Isabella Rossellini) who adores Arthur like he was her child, while becoming entangled with Flora’s live-in housekeeper Italia (Carol Duarte). If “La chimera” struggles at all in this otherwise fantastic film, it’s because Arthur is such a blank slate. Even though Arthur is an enigma to the audience, his personality comes through in the most fleeting moments. O’Connor’s performance shines as he stumbles towards gravesites, celebrations and Flora’s house seemingly at random.

Rohrwacher populates her film with goofy characters, taking the viewers on a tour of the countryside while emphasizing the tenderness between Arthur and Italia that’s blooming. “La chimera” encapsulates the languid and sweltering heat of the Tuscan summer, giving the early grave-robbings the energy of a half-hearted adventure film. Arthur’s gift, a clairvoyance for where these treasures are buried, helps coat the film with an additional layer of magical realism. But the heart of the film remains with Italia, played by Carol Duarte with a sense of quirkiness that never becomes overbearing. The tonal balance that Rohrwacher manages here would struggle if not for the essential, elastic performance of Duarte. 

One of Rohrwacher’s strengths is how she incorporates the ideal amount of childlike wonder, which conjures comparisons to renowned Italian director Federico Fellini’s surrealist tendencies. It doesn’t hurt that each location is accentuated by cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who lets the beaches and Flora’s crumbling mansion feel warm and familiar while switching between 16 and 35mm film. The cave spelunking sequences are a highlight, lighting each new relic only with Arthur’s lantern.

“La chimera” is carefree and casual until it quickly isn’t, letting Rohrwacher’s meandering script snap into gear once Arthur’s gang finds a particularly vast trove of Etruscan artifacts and sculpture. Rohrwacher begins hammering into her themes here with a sense of purpose, bringing in art dealers and bidding wars to highlight the ways that capitalism can both corrode the emotional value of art and its history. As these twists and turns begin unraveling, the moral dubiousness of Arthur’s graverobbing starts to weigh heavier. But Rohrwacher’s deft touch behind the camera helps keep “La chimera” from sinking under its thematic smorgasbord. 

While the film is stuffed with many cerebral themes, Rohrwacher is still able to ground her film in the film’s eccentric ensemble. Whether it’s Flora’s fussy children that don’t approve of Arthur, a wonderful tangent at a train station with Italia and her friends, or just the foolish gravediggers Arthur cohabitates with. Each portion rambles but quickly finds small, unexpectedly crowd-pleasing moments in tough environments, a strength of Rohrwacher throughout “La chimera.” But most important is the memory of Beniamina, who continues to haunt Arthur until the film’s melancholic, worthwhile conclusion. “La chimera” insightfully and entertainingly ponders the value of nostalgia and how it can consume the things and people we’ve lost, which makes Arthur’s wistful coda more than ideal. 

Contact Ethan Beck at [email protected].

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