La Chimera

Ann Rennie 2 April 2024

An unconventional film about a group of archaeologists and the black market of historical artifacts.

La Chimera. Italian. English subtitles. Starring Josh O’Connor, Isabella Rosellini, Carol Duarte, Alba Rohrwacher, Vincenzo Nemolato and Yile Yara Vianello. Director: Alice Rohrwacher. 132 minutes.

This was film with some big ambitions, but for this reviewer it seemed a little unresolved and too whimsical to firmly place in the category of a film to see again. Set in Italy in the 1980s, it revolves around the dishevelled yet appealingly humble archaeologist Arthur (O’Connor). We meet him as he is released from prison and come to understand that his incarceration has been to do with looting ancient graves for artefacts that may or may not be of historical value.

He is suffering the loss of a loved one, Beniamina (Vianello), the daughter of Flora, played by Isabella Rosellini. Flora is fond of Arthur and he indulges her patrician airs. Rosellini plays the role with a fine insouciance as she manipulates her singing pupil, Italia, (Duarte) to become a maid of all work. Meanwhile, Italia manages to hide the fact that she also has two children living in the house. This becomes something of a minor domestic comedy and Arthur is later briefly warmed by this woman’s honesty and lack of pretence.

Arthur is the gentle leader of a gang of grave-robbers or tombaroli who pretend to be farmers and entertainers, but who really make their money digging up the land and occasionally finding tunnels that have lain undisturbed since Etruscan times. They deal in a rich and shady world of art dealing where provenances can be faked, and prices are stratospheric with deals done in private auctions on large yachts in the Mediterranean. They are a thieving, noisy, nosy simple bunch who work under the cover of darkness and reflect little on what they do except as an easy way to make an income.

There are some amusing scenes when the entertainers dress as witches such as La Befana and a rival group pretend to be the carabinieri and run them off their latest find, a beautiful ancient intact marble sculpture of a woman holding a fish. The occasional Benny-Hill like scenes with the film speeded up are fun. However, underneath, there remains the questions of the looting of graves and the disturbing of souls and the questionable morality of digging up the past to make money. 

There are scenes of communitarian kindness and care when the deserted town railway station is converted into a home by Italia and fellow squatters. There is an amusing scene of sibling rivalry when Flora’s daughters do all sorts of wheedling to get her to go into a nursing home. These are small gems that the viewer recognises as truthful. Arthur, though, seems forlorn and disconnected from most of what is going on. He is not grounded. Much as there is group garrulity and drinking, there is not much joy in his life as he lopes along melancholically with the gang bumping heads behind him.

This film is not conventional and for some this will be its appeal. It plays with history and fantasy and there is an occasional graininess of film and unusual angles that suggest a touch of the vaudeville. It seems to me that Arthur is seeking something that he cannot find, and his happy ending (spoiler alert) hangs by a thread.

Release date: 9 April



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