Here, there, everywhere: La Chimera is a beguiling, dreamy masterpiece

Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of Ad Vitam Distribution

Somewhere, maybe not here but not totally elsewhere, and maybe not in the present though not necessarily in the past either, a man, Arthur (Josh O’Connor) is asleep on a train. Cutting his way across the Tuscan countryside, he dreams, seemingly in 16mm film, of his love Beniamina (Yile Vianello) before being jolted awake.

These are the opening moments of Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera, a beguiling and transfixing fairy-tale which takes a dreary, decaying world and unearths beauty and resplendence from underneath the soil. It finds wonder in cracked statues, beauty in dirty fingernails. While it may deal in crumbling ruins and broken relics, that’s only because it pleads with us to savour our lives while we are still living.

Arthur has just been released from prison after serving an unspecified stint for grave robbing, though in his tattered white suit he looks like he’s wandered out of a Fellini film. Returning home to the town of Riparbella, Tuscany, he finds himself in the decaying home of Beniamina’s mother Flora (Isabella Rossellini).

Beniamina is probably dead, and before long Arthur is back in with his raffish gang of tombaroli, professional tomb raiders, who are eager for him to use his talents. They sell on their plunder to a shady broker, Frida (Alba Rohrwacher) who deals with ultra-wealthy buyers.

Typically striking is director Rohrwacher’s use of form: she employs three types of film here, to beautiful effect. The bulk of the film is shot on grainy Super 16mm, Arthur’s dreams are in boxy 16mm, and the remarkable sequences of graverobbing are captured in comparatively crisp 35mm.

These latter sequences, which are legitimately astonishing, fill the screen, as if Arthur’s only true happiness is found underneath the ground amongst relics of the dead. He is neither dead nor alive, an Orpheus in the underworld, out of time with the world around him (the film is ostensibly set in the 1980s, but Rohrwacher plays the setting fast and loose).

O’Connor, who rose to fame playing Prince Charles in The Crown, brings a fleet-footed thuggishness to his role, never a villain but never quite a hero. And his command of Italian is admirable, tantalisingly suggesting the character’s ambiguous origins.

But Arthur is surrounded by a ragtag group of outcasts and weirdos, and Rohrwacher’s ensemble gamely rise to the challenges she sets them. Mélodie (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) is a photographer, though in Rohrwacher’s hands her habit of breaking the fourth wall is totally normal. And as the matriarchal Flora, Rossellini gently depicts a mother unmoored by the loss of her daughter.

Viewers unaccustomed to Rohrwacher’s style may have to withstand with a certain degree of narrative drift – the director is more than content to let us hang out with these tombaroli until the discovery of a beautiful sculpture halfway through kicks off the story proper – but the film is so beautifully told, and packed with sequences that frequently took the breath away, I was dreading its ending.

La Chimera leads us warmly into the past, into a world which is not quite our own but adjacent to it, so that when you emerge the whole planet seems alive with possibility.

In the film’s most moving sequence, Arthur stares into the eyes of a woman’s ageless face rendered in marble: “You’re not made for human eyes”, our tramp protagonist laments. It’s very kind of Rohrwacher to let us watch regardless.

La Chimera – official trailer

La Chimera releases in UK cinemas on 10 May. For Birmingham screenings follow the below links:

The Electric Cinema:
Mockingbird Cinema:

For more on La Chimera visit: