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'La Chimera' Review: Josh O’Connor Looks For Lost Love In Rohrwacher’s Meditation On Loss


La Chimera
La Chimera (2023); image courtesy of Curzon

Watching Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera, I couldn’t help returning to D. H. Lawrence’s late-career lyric Bavarian Gentians. Written in the Autumn of 1929, the spiral-structured, intoxicatingly worded poem follows the ailing narrative persona as they navigate the liminal space between life and death. Lawrence composed the poem during his prolonged stay in Tuscany, where his encounters with dilapidated Etruscan tombs and their lost cultures left a profound impact on his ailing mind. Rohrwacher’s film (which also completes her unofficial trilogy on Italian identity) follows a protagonist who straddles the liminal spaces that separate the mortal realm from the immortal, all the while coming to terms with an overwhelming grief that seems to consume him whole. Like Lawrence’s poem, the film is pungent with nostalgia and yearning for a world lost to time, and is made with an artistic vision that is as sprawling as it is precise. Watching it on an early Wednesday morning, was quite a hypnotic experience – one that I will hold onto for a while.  

 

La Chimera, a grainy, gothic mood piece exquisitely shot by Helene Louvart (The Lost Daughter, 2021) in a chiaroscuro style, is the story of Arthur (a roguishly handsome Josh O’Connor), a British archaeologist in 1980s Tuscany. The first time we encounter him, Arthur is in a severely concerning state of being: recently released from jail, his clothes are tattered and soiled, his face unshaven, his fingers perpetually perched around a cigarette butt, and he is constantly plagued by these ridiculously beautiful, sun-drenched dream montages of his lover Beniamina. The latter we learn in the first half of the film is long dead and is the daughter of an ageing local aristocrat (a delightful Isabella Rossellini) who continues to hope for her daughter’s return inside the walls of her crumbling Tuscan stone mansion. With walls that are covered with fading frescoes and stucco work, the mansion also houses her new maid Italia (Carol Duarte in a quietly moving performance) who eventually forms an electric emotional connection with Arthur.


La Chimera
La Chimera (2023); image courtesy of Curzon

Arthur, who lives on the edges of the village in a makeshift shanty, has a strange, almost otherworldly gift. Considering he is British, his character appears to be exactly the kind of figure Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote that famous curse-like warning on his own tombstone. His almost animal-like capacity to fetch the exact location of Etruscan tombs buried under layers and layers of soil and full of lost cultural treasures makes him the ideal centre for a gang of Fellini-esque, tomb-looting troubadours, who rely on Arthur’s skills to locate these tombs, rob them of their art and then sell them off to a mysterious black market dealer Spartaco (Alba Rohrwacher). Amid this motley of brightly coloured and etched characters stands the grim yearning at the heart of Arthur’s personality. His singular quest to reunite with his lost lover—in this life or the next, through whatever means necessary. Although the film never outlines it, Arthur’s tomb robbery and repeated journeying into the nether world, in many ways make his journey an appropriate extension of the Orpheus myth. 


Like Orpheus, who bent the world with his music and eventually descended into the depths of Hades to bring back his dead lover, Arthur’s almost King Arthur-like quest (if you didn’t see this coming, then apologies) searching for what he has lost forever, is tinged with piercing melancholia. It is a melancholia that stems from the knowledge of his own mortality, and the impossibility of his desire to grasp the immortal realms of his now-dead and lost lover. O’Connor, whose languid, skinny self populates almost every single frame of this film, turns in a phenomenal performance. Halfway through the film, when he stumbles upon a fabulous tomb featuring the marble figure of an Earthen Goddess, his eyes light up at the sight of a beauty that is devastatingly encased with the morality of life. He says, with the gentlest of murmurs, “You were never meant for human eyes”. Arguably one of the more heavy-handed writings from the film, this line would have come across as pretentious and stagey in the hands of a lesser artist. But O’Connor, whose rendering of this lost Orpheus-like prototype leans less towards a metropolitan Scorsese vigilante and more towards a suburban, soft Fellini-esque rogue, makes you buy the several conceits of this screenplay. In the devastating loss that inhabits his eyes, we see the pain that drives his fabulist pursuits and eventually leads him down a path of his own making. 


La Chimera
La Chimera (2023); image courtesy of Curzon

The heavy-handed nature of this story is offset by extremely informed writing decisions that frontline side characters with contours of refined humour. At one point, one of the tomb robbers breaks the fourth wall and tells us that the Etruscans gave the Italians culture and saved them from their machismo; the theatre I saw this film in burst out laughing. In another, not-so-sudden turn of events, an invaluable piece of artwork meets with a comically slippery, watery end. Besides being a meditation on grief and processing the passing of a loved one, Rohrwacher also extends light, yet biting commentary on the black market that supposedly operates behind the scenes to keep the art and museum world up and running. Despite the more obvious and pointed implications of tomb robbery, there is also the overarching question of urban geography and the fate of lost, crumbling structures in a world that is rapidly altering. In a blink-and-you-miss-it shot, we see our motley of tomb robbers going down inside a grave as the skyline of a concrete city looms threateningly behind them. These towering structures stand in stark contrast to the cobbled streets that line the village streets where this story takes place. There is the loss of our protagonist, yes, but Rohrwacher points us curiously towards something else, more piquant: the social spaces that threaten to be lost forever under the encroachment and violence of brutal, modernist cityscapes. 

 

Rohrwacher has been an indie, festival circuit darling since her initial heydays (both The Wonders and Happy as Lazzaro competed for the Palme D’Or in 2014 and 2018 respectively) and it comes as no surprise that La Chimera too was nominated to compete for the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Although the film lost the top award to Justine Triet’s universally acclaimed, stone-cold dissection of a marriage Anatomy of a Fall (2023), Rohrwacher’s two-hour-long love song needs to be seen and appreciated by everyone for the sheer eccentricity with which it mixes fabulism with emotional heft to offer a deeply moving portrait of living, grieving and loving after death. 


La Chimera is in cinemas from 10th May and on Curzon Home Cinema from 21st June.


 

Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor


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