Rohrwacher’s ‘La Chimera’ is pure magic

Arthur returns home after serving time in prison for grave robbing. His homecoming is greeted as a hero by a ragtag carnival tombaroli troupe—tomb raiders who plunder Etruscan artifacts—who view Arthur more as a prince than a penniless thief. They call him “The Maestro.” With remarkable accuracy, Arthur can point out where to dig. In one scene, he takes a small, bent branch as a dowsing tool. “La Chimera” itself appears to play out in much the same way – a stunning, earthy buried treasure with sublime gravitational pull. The specific moment I completely fell in love with La Chimera – and this is a film I love very much – is an early montage in which Arthur and his fellow scavengers scurry across the countryside, hiding in the fields from the bumbling police, while the folk are sung a song about an English tombarolo. “La Chimera,” the third installment in Rohrwacher’s loose trilogy after “The Wonders” and “Happy as Lazzaro,” is the most complete embodiment yet of “magical neorealist” cinema. Rohrwacher’s great fascination is with the past. The control you can have in the present.

The vast and small distance between the distant past and today. “Happy as Lazaro” has charmed the way of a peasant from the 19th century to the present day. “La Chimera” is more beguiling and sadder. The Toparoli make a merry band, but Arthur’s plight is clouded by death. “He was looking for a passage to the afterlife,” says one of his companions in the film, in a series of direct speeches. Arthur and his companions make money by selling their discovered Etruscan goods. But money is not driven by the desire to reach the dead, to reach Binyamina. How far will he dig? Will he be enveloped in the darkness of the underworld? Arthur also pays occasional visits to Benjamina’s mother, Flora (the usually wonderful Isabella Rossellini), who, like him, has yet to accept her daughter’s death. She receives him with kindness and respect, in old-world style. Flora’s other daughters joke that she only allows men to smoke in the house.

At her dilapidated villa, Arthur meets Italia (Carole Duarte, wonderful), a singing student who, Flora says, is tone-deaf. But she may be the sharpest observer in the film. Italy alone is horrified by the looting of graves. In other ways, they are an embodiment of the time that cemeteries remember. It is notable that the Etruscans raised the status of women in society – one of the remnants of the past, though not the only one, that “La Chimera” brings to the present day. Past and present blend in mysterious ways in “La Chimera.”

The greatest Etruscan find – a glorious subterranean chamber – was made on the beach with a factory located just below the beach. But the film’s most fascinating exploration is into Arthur’s sad soul. O’Connor is great in a role that requires the finer balance between tangible reality and other-worldly tale. Like many things in “La Chimera,” O’Connor’s performance is both captivating and disorienting. How a film can so cleverly balance past and present, you can’t help but wonder. It is the substance of fairy tales – a kind of storytelling magic – that Rohrwacher herself wants to discover. “Were you dreaming?” Good question. “La Chimera”, a Neon release, was not rated by the Motion Picture Association. In Italian with English subtitles. Showing duration: 133 minutes. Four stars out of four.

Written by Jake Coyle

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