Alice Rohrwacher’s cinema occupies a unique place in the festival landscape, part pleasingly familiar and part bracingly daring, especially in the context of her relatively meteoric rise. After her debut Corpo Celeste played in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar at Cannes 2011, her sophomore The Wonders won the Grand Prix at Cannes 2014, Happy as Lazzaro won general acclaim in 2018 (also at Cannes) and still stands as one of the most unexpected Netflix acquisitions ever), and her short film Le Pupille from last year somehow even garnered her an Oscar nomination. This has all come as her style and concerns have remained consistent, a melding of a general Italian neorealist heritage with a disarmingly casual approach to magical realism, all caught on rough-hewn textured images as shot by Hélène Louvart.
As Rohrwacher’s body of work has grown, her films have increasingly taken on a mythic dimension, signaled sharply by the mid-film time jump of Happy as Lazzaro, and her newest feature, La Chimera, moves several steps forward. Set sometime in the 1980s, the film follows Arthur (Josh O’Connor), a moody Englishman who has just finished a prison sentence in central Italy as he returns to the rural town where two groups vie for his attention: the denizens of the decaying estate where the mother (Isabella Rossellini) of his lost love Beniamina holds court, and the members of his gang of tombaroli (tomb raiders). He is the focal point of this latter group, using a seemingly innate connection to the earth and ad hoc dowsing rods to sense the locations of Etruscan graves, whose underground passageways and chambers are as much a promise of profit and liberation to Arthur’s brethren as they are an externalization of his inchoate desire to be reunited with his lover.
La Chimera is powered by such cycles of excavation and potential rebirth, during which Rohrwacher’s approach constantly shifts, jumping between three shooting formats and corresponding aspect ratios — 1.66:1 super 16mm, the primary medium; 1.33:1 16mm, used for brief shots that may be flashbacks or may be dreams; and 1.85:1 35mm, interspersed seemingly at random — and throwing in direct address and scenes of sped-up motion that resemble silent comedy. The effect is one of instability, where everything about Arthur’s situation feels tenuous, most of all his mercurial nature and wavering feelings about his profession, exacerbated by a potential new love in the suggestively-named Italia (Carol Duarte). O’Connor anchors this all with a marvelously beleaguered demeanor, using his relatively towering stature and rumpled suits with a forcefulness entirely different from the sanguine lead in Happy as Lazzaro.
The beauty of La Chimera lies in its grace notes, its unexpected invocations and subterranean motifs. Though nearly all involved suffer a tangible, realistic downturn in their fortunes, with Rohrwacher’s sister Alba providing a cameo as a multilingual antiques fence that stands in for all the wider economic and cultural forces chipping away at these hapless paisans, it is romance and myth that govern the day, in loaded images such as frescoes slowly oxidizing when the underground seal is broken, a swirling flock of birds seemingly flying at random, and a red thread that invokes the myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth. Arthur’s quest, in the end, relies equally on the machinations of man and seemingly divine intervention, and Rohrwacher’s film is expansive and wondrous enough to incorporate both with an overwhelming grace.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2023 — Dispatch 1.