La Chimera review | A subtly splendid tale of grief and graverobbing

la chimera review
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Josh O’Connor stars a grief-stricken graverobber in Alice Rohrwacher’s gorgeous new film. Here’s our La Chimera review.

Italian director Alice Rohrwacher is a master of combining almost supernatural elements with the mundane. Her 2018 feature Happy As Lazzarro was an ambitious, spellbinding exploration of friendships and modern life. Rohrwacher’s latest film, La Chimera, once again combines magical realism and the humdrum with thrilling, if sometimes inaccessible results. 

The film opens with a woman, as dreamt by Josh O’Connor’s grumbly archaeologist-turned-grave robber Arthur. Arthur is a man of few words, mourning the loss of his beloved Beniamina (Yile Vianello). We’re not privy to what exactly happened to Beniamina, but we’re acutely aware of Arthur’s bereavement. 

Arthur has a bizarre talent of being able to locate buried treasure. He and his friends then sell the artefacts and reap short-lived benefits. One day, Arthur meets Italia (Carol Duarte), the new housekeeper of Beniamina’s mother Flora (Isabella Rossellini, making the most of her small part) and sparks fly. The question is, can Arthur put aside his misery and allow himself some happiness? 

la chimera josh o'connor
Credit: Curzon

The funny thing about La Chimera is that while I was watching it, I didn’t think much of it. I enjoyed it and thought it was fine, perhaps not quite my cup of tea. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this review, after letting the film simmer in mind, that I realised what a profound effect it had on me. I can’t seem to shake the film, revisiting it most days and mulling over its magic and its themes of loneliness and love.

That’s the magic of Rohrwacher’s work. There are no big bursts of emotion, no on-the-nose monologues about love, but all the emotion is there and it’s communicated clearly and subtly. Rohrwacher doesn’t forcefully guide our feelings, but gently nudges us to understand Arthur’s grief and life. It’s rather masterful, on further reflection. 

O’Connor is a charismatic lead in a film that has little plot but much to explore. Arthur wades through life in a crumpled white suit, a cigarette often hanging from his lips, and O’Connor nails Arthur’s glassy, forlorn gaze. One character calls Arthur’s ability to find treasure as his “gift of finding lost things”, but the more time we spend with Arthur, the more apparent it becomes that he himself is a lost thing. 

Duarte provides a nice counterbalance to O’Connor’s moodiness. Her Italia, a single mother of two, is full of life and her liveliness softens Arthur. Suddenly, there’s a chance that he might find happiness again one day. The pair’s flirtation is innocent and romantic, arguably the film’s most interesting plotline, but Rohrwacher sometimes struggles to find balance between the budding romance and Arthur’s graverobbing ways. 

While La Chimera never reaches the highs of Happy As Lazarro, Rohrwacher has a remarkable talent of creating a unique ambience in her films. Films can be a passive experience; you sit and take in whatever’s fed to you without really engaging with what they’re saying. With Rohrwacher’s films, especially La Chimera, it feels like we’re being immersed in their dreamy atmosphere. 

La Chimera could be described as inaccessible due to its lack of plot and simmering approach to its themes. Rohrwacher is much more concerned with overall mood. Films like these will always prove divisive with audiences, and La Chimera certainly tests your patience. Rohrwacher rarely gives us any details or history of her characters, but there’s also a disarming honesty to the film’s ability to exist purely in the here and now. 

La Chimera is in UK cinemas now.

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