Josh O’Connor Steals Treasure, This Movie, Your Heart

Legend has it that if you were to stroll around Riparbella, a small Italian village in the rural part of Tuscany, you would come across a number of tombs. Some were hidden, some were open, and many of these underground burial sites were more than 2000 years old, filled with ancient artifacts. For centuries, they were left undisturbed, as a sign of respect for the dead. Then, in the early 1980s, grave robbers known as tombaroli would ransack these sacred spaces and sell the stolen goods on the black market, which allegedly catered to both busy museum curators and the idle rich. Should these thieves be lucky, they might net a small fortune courtesy of a rare Etruscan vase procured during a nocturnal raid. Should they be unlucky, they’d be cursed by the enraged spirits of the deceased. Roll, the dice, take your chances.

La Chimera — the latest work from one of the (last?) shining lights of modern Italian cinema, Alice Rohrwacher — takes place in this exact region, during this exact bygone era, and ruminates over the same exact notions of mythology, mortality and magical realism that have characterized her shorts, collaborations (she’s one of three credited directors on the 2021 teenage-wasteland documentary Futura) and previous three features. There’s something that feels more ethereal and haunting about this new drama compared to her past work, however, even if you count the Fellini-esque flights of fancy, the earthy sense of rural life on the fringe, and the occasional sped-up, silent-comedy vignettes. So much of the story takes place firmly in and on the ground, whether its characters are grubbing around the countryside or descending six feet under. Yet like her film’s moody and mercurial tour guide, Rohrwacher is focused on a less terrestrial, more celestial world that lies just beyond our sight line. It’s the place where memory resides. That, and the souls of the dead.

About that guide: He’s Arthur (Josh O’Connor), a British archeological scholar who’s just finished a prison sentence thanks to his off-hour activities. To call him dissolute would be a kindness — he’s got a hair-trigger temper, and you’d think from the state of his dingy white suit that he himself had just awaken from a long winter’s dirt nap. Arriving back in Riparbella, he’s none too happy to see his former partners in crime. They, however, couldn’t be more excited, as Arthur has “the gift” for finding hidden-treasure hot spots. All he wants is to be reunited with his sweetheart, a beautiful young Italian woman named Beliamina (Yale Yara Vianello). Her mother, Flora (Isabella Rossellini), thinks she’ll be back any day now. Arthur indulges this kindly matron’s hope. He seems to know Beliamina is gone for good….

Soon, Arthur is back with his old gang and back to his old ways, “liberating” offerings left by families to ease loved ones into the afterworld. This is our legacy as much as theirs, his Italian cohorts claim. Yet the Englishman gets no pleasure out of plundering, even when there are bigger paydays on the horizon. Nor does he seem to get much joy from being around Italia (Carol Duarte), a student who takes voice lessons from Flora. She’s extremely tone-deaf and more of a servant to Beliamina’s mother than a prodigy, cleaning the house and listening in on Arthur’s conversations. And while Italia might be a potential new romantic interest for him, his heartbreak has him anchored down strong enough to keep him from ever moving on. His own personal chimera is a return to a lost Eden littered with eaten apples. Arthur can keep stealing the past, but he can never, ever bring it back.

Rohrwacher has said that much of this loose, often funny and indelibly tragic story comes from her own memories of seeing similar holes in the ground while growing up near Tuscany, and the way she seems to be ransacking her own scrapbooks to conjure up ’80s Italy would be impressive enough on its own. Ditto the way her playfulness doesn’t dilute the anger that simmer right beneath the surface of this pointed look at social inequity. Yet this tirelessly inventive filmmaker keeps throwing in different aspect ratios and film stocks, some of which resemble home movies and others that bring to mind old 16mm prints passed around back in the day. It’s probably not a coincidence that Rossellini is cast as a link to Arthur’s yesteryear given the place of prominence her father has in Italian cinema — although given the way this legend can slide from nurturing to daffy to predatory in seconds, we don’t think her parentage was the main reason Rohrwacher sought her out.


And even while the director is displaying her knack for cine-magic tricks and formalist gestures, she’s also well aware that she blessed with someone at the center of this carousel who needs no illusionist’s help. Whether you first clocked Josh O’Connor in a small part on Peaky Blinders, in Francis Lee’s swooning romance God’s Own Country (2017) or as the younger Prince Charles on The Crown, you probably thought: Oh, this gent is destined for bigger spotlights. Here, he’s offering a link to the past that’s different from what Rohrwacher is chasing: the New Hollywood ’70s. With his scraggly traveler’s beard, his bad-mood-rising scowl and a linen suit that only gets more soiled and threadbare as things go along (couture metaphor alert!), O’Connor is giving you the type of ragged, rich anti-hero performance you associate with that lauded age of film history. You could easily see Al Pacino circa Panic in Needle Park playing Arthur 50 years ago. Given the way O’Connor lends this lost soul such a downbeat charisma and genuine sense of pain — even his gentle smiles register as sobs — you’re just thankful that we’re getting a performer of such immense talent doing justice to this tomb raider right now. (And given the extraordinary timing of this release, right before his next big project Challengers drops, you’re apt to revisit notions about the non-existence of higher powers. This is the kind of one-two punch that makes people stars.)

There’s no point in trying to describe what Rohrwacher is leading up to exactly, given what a mood piece this film is. But you may have already begun to suspect that La Chimera is also, among the many other genres it’s pillaging, a ghost story. Not in the gothic, I-see-dead-people way necessarily, but in the manner of how those no longer shuffling on this mortal coil continue to communicate with those left behind. You might notice a red string flailing and trailing about the frame several times during Rohrwacher’s more poetic detours. That tiny bit of yarn ends up paying off in such a profound manner that, once you get to the final scene, it’s hard not to break into a slow clap. Some wishes can be granted, at a price. And others, well …they truly are an impossible dream. The dead remain the dead. But Italian cinema? The sort of go-for-baroque moviemaking that once characterized the European nation as a lodestar of auteurism? That, as La Chimera proves, is alive and well.


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