3.5 out of 5 stars

Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera is a beautiful tale about nothing. However, never has a film brimming with such life felt so cold by the time the credits roll. Set in 1980s Tuscany, Arthur (Josh O’Connor) is a dishevelled and downbeat Englishman abroad. A former archaeology scholar, he never looks clean-shaven, often sporting a grubby white suit and chain-smoking cigarettes…

We first meet Arthur on a train, dressed in a grubby white suit, having just been released from an Italian prison. His menacing posture and snarl make him look every bit the criminal, threatening the man selling odds and ends on the train. But delve a little deeper, and you’ll discover a lost soul—a once-respectable scholar in his field who’s fallen on hard times.

Upon his return from prison, he’s welcomed back into a gang of grave robbers. Though reluctant to rejoin after taking the blame for their last job, he has nowhere else to turn. He’s an outsider in the group, and not just because he’s an Englishman who speaks imperfect Italian. Gentle and soulful, he clashes with the boisterous clan he surrounds himself with. The money from finding Etruscan treasures holds no interest for him. The real treasure lies elsewhere, in something altogether more spiritual.

Arthur is a valuable asset to this band of grave robbers, known as the Tombaroli. He has a knack for finding long-lost artefacts using just a forked stick as a dowsing rod. Heartbreakingly attuned to the spirit world, he lives in the space between reality and the dream realm. When he locates the treasure, he becomes disoriented and faints. His comrades, however, are never concerned with his physical or mental well-being after these episodes; their focus is solely on the Lira value of their plunder.

Arthur’s desires remain unclear until a dream of a beautiful young woman named Beniamina (Yile Vianello) offers a glimpse. The true irretrievable artefact from his past isn’t the gold and pots unearthed from the soil, but a woman who is no longer around. Though she’s truly gone, her mother, Flora (Isabella Rossellini), clings to the belief she will return. Rossellini imbues the film with warmth through her brand of no-nonsense kindness. This stands in stark contrast to the passive-aggressive contempt she harbours for her housekeeper, Italia (Carol Duarte). Flora’s remaining daughters have dismissed her as a dotty old lady, driven mad by grief, but Arthur shares her ideology.

La Chimera celebrates an Italy that no longer exists, one of the many callbacks to the past with which the film is obsessed. The band of grave-robbing bandits take part in the town’s carnival celebrations, dressing up in gaudy costumes and riding a tractor down the street. A cantastorie, or storytelling musician, appears throughout, illustrating the narrative through archaic ballads.

Josh O’Connor portrays Arthur with a deep sense of melancholy and longing. Years of pain and turmoil are etched across his handsome face. Despite the jovial smile, Arthur’s ghosts are etched into every movement and every smile. It’s a remarkable performance in a role where the actor needs very minimal dialogue to portray his anguished inner life.

What is La Chimera trying to say? It’s almost impossible to tell. The basic plot is simple: a man trying to restart his life without his beloved after falling in with the wrong crowd. It’s less a film to concentrate on and more a movie to let slowly wash over you. There are no answers to this picaresque and whimsical drama, so don’t try to look for them.

Alice Rohrwacher’s (The Wonders) distinctive style is evident throughout this film. Every second of La Chimera brims with life and character, with Italy acting as a co-star to the leading man, Josh O’Connor (Challengers). The dilapidated houses and wilting flowers are captured with a romantic mysticism. Shot by cinematographer Hélène Louvart, the soft-coloured palette and hazy cinematography lend La Chimera the feeling of waking up from a distant yet devastating dream.

La Chimera occasionally tries too hard to be whimsical and play tricks on the audience. The film has enough intrigue that it doesn’t need to add unreliable visions, aspect ratio changes, and sped-up sequences. This trickery ultimately detracts from O’Connor’s soulful performance and the lingering sense of the unseen ghost haunting his story.

Without the stunning cinematography and magical realism, La Chimera is a rather underwhelming film. The road is filled with sweeping Italian landscapes, a cast of eccentric characters, and a soulful performance, yet the journey never quite feels worthwhile


frame rated divider - curzon

Cast & Crew

writer & director: Alice Rohrwacher.
starring: Josh O’Connor, Carol Duarte, Vincenzo Nemolato, Alba Rohrwacher & Isabella Rossellini.