Review: A sun-dappled Italian fable, ‘La Chimera’ feels like the discovery of a new language

Time increases the monetary value of certain objects we leave behind. What was once brand new the years turn into antiques — like the Etruscan artifacts exhumed after being hidden for millennia in Alice Rohrwacher’s “La Chimera,” a film of incandescent beauty, both aesthetically and in its thematic liminality. As with Rohrwacher’s previous movies, there is an exquisite blurring between the tangible and the ethereal, the urban and the pastoral, life and death, past and present — all of it overlapping with the same ease as the hues of a twilight sky.

But Rohrwacher, an Oscar-nominated writer-director who lives in Italy disconnected from the spotlight of the entertainment industry, cares little for the price attached to these ancient worldly possessions. Their significance, she suggests, lies in what they represented for those who first created them: a fervent belief in a glorious afterlife, and how that resonates with our own mortal yearning for meaning.

For Arthur (Josh O’Connor of “The Crown”), a wayward British archaeologist living in 1980s small-town Tuscany, a dream anchors him to his own elusive sense of purpose: Beniamina (Yile Vianello), the woman he loved and lost. But most of the time, he’s plying an illegal trade, using his otherworldly talent to find sites where long-buried treasures await. Arthur commands a band of bohemian misfits making a meager living as tombaroli or grave-robbers. Their ill-obtained “grave goods” will grace museums or private collections.

Speaking Italian for most of his performance, O’Connor transmits an enigmatic, sorrowful melancholy. Like a wounded boy desperate for an embrace but who refuses to verbalize his need, he wanders penniless through town, a handsome flesh-and-blood specter in a dirty white suit.

A woman and a man stand on a beach.

Carol Duarte and Josh O’Connor in the movie “La Chimera.”


Still, there’s a lifeline for him in the industrious Italia (radiant Brazilian actress Carol Duarte), a young mother of two working for Beniamina’s mother Flora (the legendary Isabella Rossellini). While Arthur remains haunted by sundrenched visions of Beniamina, Italia is occupied with what’s in front of her, namely the search for a place to call home and a chance at a future. Even after they become romantically involved, they each inhabit opposite planes of existence.

Rohrwacher carries out her soulful excavation with a sense of playful perspective. Halfway through the film, a troubadour sings a ballad recounting the misadventures of the poor thieves we’ve been watching, pointing out Arthur’s adrift state. The tune plays over a montage that features cops-and-robbers chases in sped-up frames for comic effect — an amusing wink to bygone cinema tricks. But these fanciful flourishes never read superfluously, instead reaffirming Rohrwacher’s comfortable straddling of the real and the fantastical.

The gifted French cinematographer Hélène Louvart (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”) alternates aspect ratios and film stocks to accentuate the in-between quality of “La Chimera.” The earthy texture of the movie’s craft, which could fool us into thinking it’s being projected from a once-believed lost and recently found old reel, aligns with the humble ethos of a storyteller concerned with people who won’t be remembered in the history books, but who nonetheless lived ferociously.

By design, O’Connor never entirely blends in with Rohrwacher’s other characters. Arthur’s foreign point of view is partly what makes him tragic, garnering puzzled looks from locals. It’s not only that he came from another country in Europe, but that he has accepted citizenship in the land of the dead, so much so that the dead speak to him in his nightmares, asking after their stolen goods, the only proof that they existed. It’s not difficult to empathize with their worry. Isn’t everything we do an attempt to assert that we matter?

Rohrwacher stays focused on the people who lend property its real significance. An empty train station becomes a refuge for the homeless in Italia’s caring hands, while wealthy Flora’s mansion falls in disrepair as her daughters sack its contents with the intention of putting their matriarch in a nursing home. By the time Arthur becomes a buried relic himself, his only escape is a ray of sun and the slippery red string representing Beniamina that brings the story full circle.

Mournful yet exuberant, “La Chimera” is a towering work of art presented with the unassuming invitation of a warming summer morning. In a way, it allows the viewer to traverse time and space, one luminous image at a time. A staunch humanist, Rohrwacher makes movies that are primed for immortality. If her latest is somehow discovered 2,000 years from now among the ruins of what we once called civilization, it would be an astoundingly flattering portrait of us.

‘La Chimera’

Not rated

In Italian and English with English subtitles

Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes

Playing: Now at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles