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la chimera movie.jpg

Review: Dirty Beautiful Josh O'Connor Digs Up The Past In 'La Chimera'

By Jason Adams | Film | March 29, 2024 |

By Jason Adams | Film | March 29, 2024 |

la chimera movie.jpg

They say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but in writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s 1980s-set Italian fantasia La Chimera that distinction has never seemed so thin. Under the Happy as Lazarro filmmaker’s lens the gorgeous small Tuscan city of Riparbella resembles nothing less than a garbage heap—just one where if you shuffle around the trash a mite you’ll unearth priceless ancient relics. The line between the past and the present is one broom-sweep away—ever the conundrum of Italy, which Rohrwacher once again captures vis-à-vis her exquisite magic-realist brush. There is simply nobody blending the now and the then like her, and blessings upon us for it.

The always great Josh O’Connor stars here as Arthur, the sort of disheveled everyman crook with a heart of gold in need of excavation that populated so much of European cinema of the 60s and 70s—think Jean-Paul Belmondo in any Godard movie or Marcello Mastroianni in any Fellini. It’s perfectly telling that the New York Film Festival screened La Chimera alongside a recently discovered short film where Agnes Varda interviewed Pier Paolo Pasolini while walking the streets of Manhattan, for this is very much the vibe you should carry into La Chimera. The transgressive playfulness of the New Wave where everybody was sexy and their sleeves were covered in filth.

When we meet Arthur he’s being released from prison in the dingy white suit he no doubt entered the place wearing—and we’ll hardly spend a second of the film with Arthur in any other outfit, because if there’s one thing this brand of character warrants it’s a bedraggled uniform. One that simultaneously screams “I don’t care” with “I look so damn cool.” See how all the girls in the train-car Arthur falls asleep on are giggling over his cuteness so much they don’t even notice, until the conductor points it out, how bad the man reeks.

Arthur arrives back in Riparbella looking for a hidden stash of stolen artifacts—turns out the man’s got a superpower where he can sniff out ancient Etruscan loot using just a tree branch and his uncanny intuition, which Rohrwacher and genius cinematographer Hélène Louvart render as a flipping of the frame; the world tizzied upside down. And that’s just the tip of the filmmakers’ playfulness - there are multiple shifting ratios and characters speaking directly into the camera and occasionally, during scenes of high action, everything speeds up to resemble silent film comedy a la Chaplin. This too transports us to our filmic past—a Godardian merrymaking, leaving no cinematic tool on the shelf. Every time you think the poor squalor of these characters and their situations might get to you, Rohrwacher acts the goof.

Anyway it turns out that Arthur’s old gang of criminal pals—called tombaroli, or tomb raiders—have squirreled away his loot for him while he was in the clink; his attempt to avoid them lasts all of five minutes, and he’s quickly pulled back into their shenanigans even though his instincts, he maintains, are purer. A lost love affair, communing with the afterworld—Arthur is a haunted man and he is trying to dig up ghosts. Not just get paid. Although the pay does help him eat.

His gig, defiling the burial chambers of antiquity and pilfering their ceremonial vases and bowls for the black market to make a fraction of a fraction of what they’ll sell two steps down the line, is ignoble to say the least, but O’Connor succeeds marvelously at suffusing Arthur with that dingy romantic spirit of yore—he is not a good man and you can tell he stinks, but swoon. And anyway the corrupt cops are no better—Arthur has a big target on him, one he can hardly shrug off given he’s a very tall and large-eared Englishman wandering the streets in a white suit. But nobody’s a hero. Everybody’s got dirt on their hands. Most of the time literal.

His lost love’s mother Flora (a terrific and very funny Isabella Rossellini) takes Arthur in on occasion to stay under the leaking roof of her dilapidated estate, which she refuses to leave even as it crumbles around her since her dead daughter wouldn’t know where to find her. She’s got a dozen other daughters - it sort of feels like the gag in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-drunk Love where Adam Sandler’s character has another sister and another sister and another sister, all of them crowding into a cacophony—who all loudly insist that she must move, but she’ll have none of it. And the only person who understands her is her Arthur.

Flora is also playing music tutor to a talentless young woman named Italia (Carol Duarte)—and all of the sisters laughingly chant “Viva Italia!” whenever they see her skulking around. Flora knows Italia has no talent but is really just using her as a maid, and Italia is okay with that because she’s got her own secrets hiding in a corner of the mansion that nobody knows about. Everybody’s relationships are happily transactional here—it’s a world of bargaining, shaking the change out of one’s pockets to make it a little way down the road, day to day, and Rohrwacher’s film aches for the near past where that lifestyle was possible.

It aches and yearns for many a lost past—where movies were feelings and meandered and sparkled and shone strange patterns; where people could find an abandoned building and make themselves a home. Where the very ground beneath our feet seemed full of mystery and possibility and history. A scene where these characters avoid swimming in a beautiful sea because the toxic waste will burn their skin, only to uncover the grandest treasure of their lives buried there beneath the sand and plastic bags and burned tires, feels like La Chimera in essence—sad and grand and mysterious, stumbling among the rubble into small pockets of intangible magic that disappear the second the light and the air hits them.