Deborah Ross

Wonderfully special: La chimera reviewed

Alice Rohrwacher's new film about a bunch of Italian graverobbers is gauzy and meandering, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking

A woozy riot: the cast of La chimera, with the sensational Josh O’Connor (Arthur) at the centre

La chimera, which, as in English, means something like ‘the unrealisable dream’, is the latest film from Italian writer/director Alice Rohrwacher (The Wonders, Happy as Lazzaro). Her films are arthouse, in the sense that if you’re in the mood for someone blowing stuff up and escaping by speedboat while enjoying flirtatious repartee with a sexy lady, this probably won’t cut it. But if you’re in the mood for something original and woozy and riotous and wonderfully special, you will be able to fill your boots.

Arthur has a kind of superpower that enables him to locate buried loot just by coming over funny

It is set in Italy in the 1980s and stars Josh O’Connor as Arthur. Arthur is a tombarolo. That is, someone who loots ancient graves for treasures that are then sold – illegally – to the art market. (Apparently, this was a big problem in Italy in the 1980s.) He is a tall Englishman in a cream linen suit who, when we first encounter him, is dozing on a train as the glorious Tuscan landscape whizzes past. He is dreaming of a beautiful woman in a knitted halter-neck dress. Woken by the ticket collector, and indifferent to the giggling girls in his carriage, his demeanour is morose, withdrawn, with an edge of anger. What is going on with Arthur? (Or ‘Ar-Too’, as the Italians seem to pronounce it.)

He disembarks in the small town where he lives and where his fellow tombaroli – some of whom are played not by actors but by locals – greet him enthusiastically. ‘Ar-Too, Ar-Too!’ they call. Arthur has a kind of superpower that enables him to locate buried loot with a tree branch held like a water-divining tool, or just by coming over funny, so they are overjoyed to have him back. But he is not happy to see them. He has, it turns out, spent a spell in prison.

While he may be a thief, he doesn’t appear to be materially motivated. His home is a corrugated-iron hovel as never featured in Elle Decoration. He visits Flora (Isabella Rossellini, sublime), an aristocrat in a mansion of decaying splendour. She is the mother of Beniamina, the woman in his – unrealisable – dream, whom he loves and longs for. (Where is she?) Flora gives singing lessons. Living with her is a student, Italia (Carol Duarte, also sublime), who is stonata, tone-deaf, and mostly deployed as a servant.

Italia is not crushed by any of this. Italia has life and energy, and if only Flora and Arthur were willing to reach for this same energy, they could start living in the now rather than the past. That’s the sense I got from the film anyhow. (The leitmotif is a red thread, unravelling from Beniamina’s knitted dress, that keeps pulling Arthur back.)

The storytelling is linear but also gauzy and meandering, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking. There are troubadours and town parades and boisterous booze-ups and characters squabbling and singing and falling out and laughing and breaking the fourth wall. Other quirks include scenes where the action is sped up, like the Keystone Cops, which didn’t work as well as it takes you out of the story, but it’s not a deal-breaker.

As for Arthur, who is no longer at ease robbing the dead, his suit becomes increasingly grimy and stained, rather like his soul. O’Connor, who learned Italian for the role, is sensational. With a great actor, I once read, you don’t know what’s going on behind their eyes but you desperately want to, and that’s how it is with Arthur.

The ending made perfect sense to me, although it will invite discussion. If you’re one of those people who at dinner after catching an arthouse film reads the New Yorker review under the table so you might have something perspicacious to say, please note that Rohrwacher’s first name is pronounced ‘A-lee-chay’. Just saving you from the embarrassment there.

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