What stories do the dead take to their graves? Alice Rohrwacher (Le Pupille) probes the elusive hunt for the past in La Chimera. This mischievously playful treasure hunt excavates old bones in a search for buried treasures. However, as wandering bum Arthur (Josh O’Connor) and his band of grave robbers scour and pillage the Italian countryside, their digs yield little more than fools’ gold.
Rohrwacher is at her playful best here. La Chimera is Little Rascals meets Red Desert with a band of Fellini-esque characters infrequently parading across the frame while Arthur’s digs lead him from the idyllic Italian countryside to an industrial wasteland. The film finds Arthur at a crossroads during a road trip of sorts. It’s not quite purgatory, but this unwashed traveller looks to be in limbo. Arthur doesn’t really seem on the level, though, long before he lands in the quaint Italian countryside. On the train over, a peddler remarks about his terrible body odour and gifts him some socks.
O’Connor’s olfactory presence grows more pungent, spicy like arrabiata, as Arthur leaves no grave unbothered. He never changes throughout his journey, and his once-crisp, once-clean, once-cream-coloured suit marks him as a man damned by the clutches of time. The treasure he seeks, moreover, is the truth about his lover, Beniamina. The young woman is missing and nearly everyone assumes she’s dead. But Arthur holds out hope, naïvely so, as no trace of her remains. As he returns to her family home, her mother, Flore (Isabella Rossellini) at least provides reassurance and warm meals.
Thick as Thieves
In Flore’s company, meanwhile, is a young woman named Italia (Carol Duarte). Like Arthur, she’s something of a drifter. Flore calls her a student, but Beniamina’s sisters call her a servant. They know that their mom is either a bleeding heart or a sucker—or both. Arthur’s freeloading indicates the latter, but he ironically bands with some local tombaroli, or grave robbers, to earn his keep. As they frolic through the countryside, singing songs like Robin Hood and Alan-A-Dale (with fewer feathers), they plunder and pillage the riches of the dead.
Arthur also has a unique talent akin to water dowsing as he holds a pronged stick and lets intuition guide him to unmarked graves. He and the tombaroli find a range of riches—ancient artifacts, priceless statues and the like—that were meant to comfort the dead and buy their passage to the afterworld.
The tombaroli, however, are moderately sophisticated for a gang of thieves. They are well-versed (enough) in the history of antiquity that defines the area. They know the lore of the Etruscans—named for the former region that now encompasses central Italy—and have an eye for artifacts. Their sense for adventure rivals Indiana Jones. But they’re also pawns in a complicated black market. The tombaroli sell their wares to Spartaco (Alba Rohrwacher, in a terrific performance). She’s something of a ghost in the market—spoken of and rarely seen. Spartaco sells artifacts to high rollers—curators from museums around the world—and Arthur and company enjoy unique status as players in a lucrative system. Compared to the farmers in their impoverished region, they’re the only ones truly profiting by tilling the land. But they’re also pawns in a game founded upon thievery.
Searching for Bones
There’s obviously great irony here as Arthur earns his keep from robbing graves while searching for his beloved. Each grave they uncover is many, many years old, but he explores them as if looking for proof. They inevitably hold corpses, but none that looks like Beniamina. But his search is a cruel one. Each strike condemns another soul to wandering. Just as the tombaroli laugh at the long-deceased relatives who buried riches with loved ones, Arthur steals priceless goods—souls—from departed Italians who expected peace long after they walked the Earth.
La Chimera explores how the hunt often outweighs the reward. O’Connor is a cipher here. He feels lost, but not directionless. He gets that Arthur hunts desperately for an x to mark his spot, an Orpheus looking for Eurydice, but not quite able to find the proper passage to the underworld.
Rohrwacher sets the story sometime in the 1980s, but the timestamp proves slippery. Her inquisitive look to the past captures the story on sun-kissed frames of 35mm and 16mm film that evoke the past. The visuals contrast with a kaleidoscope soundtrack that mixes contemporary synth with the tombaroli ballads. The “where” and the “when” of Arthur’s story keep butting heads, yet his suit gets grimier and grimier, offering the lone mark of the passage of time.
Try to piece the film together, and it’s hard to pin down. Like its namesake, La Chimera envelops its motley crew in a quest to achieve an unobtainable goal. Just surrender to the search.