Alice Rohrwacher’s (“Happy as Lazzaro”) “La Chimera,” awarded the 2023 Silver Hugo for Best Cinematography and Best Ensemble Performances, screened at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival. This film, Italian-made on Italian soil, stars Josh O’Connor (“Mothering Sunday”) as the scruffy Englishman Arthur, a temperamental and forlorn tomb raider with a mysterious ability to intuit grave sites. What originally appears as a heist plot is, in fact, a love story — a ghost story, rather. Arthur, unlike the other thieves he is in league with, is not interested in riches. He is in search of a key to the other side, with which he can be reunited with his lost love, Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello, “Corpo Celeste”).
A Chimera is a fire-breathing creature in Greek mythology: a female with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail. Aatish Tasser of the New York Times parses the cultural subtext of the Chimera with far more eloquence than I am able to achieve: “‘Chimera,’ the word — with a small ‘c’ — (has) passed into our lexicon, becoming shorthand for all that (is) illusory, grotesque, wondrous and out of reach, a three-way bridge between the human, the divine and the netherworldly.” A Chimera is also an unattainable desire — a non-reality that balances carefully between the physical and the arcane. The film explores this balance through the unsanctioned excavation of Etruscan artifacts the characters steal and pawn off to the elusive fence Spartaco (Alba Rohrwacher, “Hungry Hearts”).
“La Chimera” is an archaeological film. It spotlights a practice that is dusty, muddy and morbid, but also romantic. The dead, who we are meant to pity and even fear, lay peacefully in the cool ground surrounded by their most valuable possessions, not able to stir even when their resting places are disturbed. They are immortal beings in this way, their memories kept by the clues left behind in bodily trauma and well-preserved treasures. Beniamina’s spirit is preserved by Arthur’s enduring love for her, found in the spiritual space he is able to momentarily access. There is a recurring visual of a red string in the film, one end in Beniamina’s hand and the other in Arthur’s. A Japanese legend my mother once told me came to mind: Tied to everyone’s pinky is an invisible red string that leads to someone whom we are destined to meet. Rohrwacher plays on a version of this idea to emphasize the tie between the living and the dead.
Rohrwacher’s film is a love letter to Tuscany — her birthplace. This film captures Italy, a setting that already vibrates with the mystique and romance of history, anew. Despite primarily taking place in a real countryside of little extravagance, “La Chimera” is a dreamscape in which the viewer is immersed. Charming characters dressed in odd frocks occasionally speak directly to the camera in their romantic tongue, as if hooking arms with the viewer and pulling them along in their strange escapades. What results is a vacuum of time and space, in which only this story exists.
“La Chimera” changes pace when Arthur and his cronies discover an immaculate statue surrounded by a magnificent array of treasures beneath feet of tightly-packed sand. A red herring lures them from their cache, and they run away with the head of the freshly decapitated statue. Discovering their spoils stolen, the band of thieves set out to redeem their profit and find Spartaco presenting the incomplete statue to a room of art dealers.
Spartaco tells her audience that the anonymity of the beheaded statue is what makes it exquisite. She, a lost artifact without name or face, is a priceless shapeshifter. She is whoever the eye of her beholder longs to see. When Arthur holds the statue head in his hands and admires her features, we know it is Beniamina he sees. “You were not meant for human eyes,” he whispers, only to her. She is his Chimera, a heavenly fantasy that haunts him, and that he can only touch by crossing into another world.
Rohrwacher does not set out to compel Arthur to let go of his Beniamina — to release the red string that binds them — as more optimistic tales of love and woe would. This story, one of magic and other worlds, observes a truth often ignored by the idealist’s perspective on romance: grief and love are not so easily extinguished, even in death. “La Chimera” refuses to paint death in an ugly light, and instead embraces the wonder of its mystic, even immortal properties through passionate expression. It challenges the idea that life and death — past and present — must, and do, remain on separate planes of existence. The line between the living and the dead is just that — a line. Perhaps there is not so much separating the two worlds, and what endows Arthur with the sole power to move between them is his grief.
Pull on the red string that “La Chimera” grasps the other end of, and stray into another world.
Daily Arts Writer Maya Ruder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.