By: Sam Weinberg  | 

“La Chimera:” A Movie Review

In Greek mythology, the “chimera” was a fire-breathing monster, a lion with the head of a goat, wings of a dragon, and a tail with the head of a snake attached to it. Many ancient artists used it as inspiration for sculptures and wall paintings. The art historian David Ekserdjian described a famous sculpture of the chimera, from the Tuscanian city of Arezzo, as “the supreme masterpiece of Etruscan bronze-casting,” referring to the people who inhabited Western Italy a few centuries BCE; unfortunately, the Chimera of Arezzo was originally part of a larger sculptural group, fighting the mythical hero Bellerophon, but the sculpture remains alone in Florence today.

The Etruscans, while not around for thousands of years, cause a lot of our protagonist’s activities in “La Chimera,” the new movie from Alice Rohrwacher, the rising Italian filmmaker. Arthur, our tall handsome Englishman played by Josh O’Connor, is in a bit of an emotional turmoil from minute 1 all the way until minute 130. We first meet him fast asleep on the train, dreaming of a girl; he’s going to her mother’s house, and they are to wait for her return. We soon find out two things: that Arthur is coming back from jail and that the girl, named Beniamina, is not coming back.

Arthur is part of a group of tombaroli, grave robbers (he would probably prefer the term archeologist, but he’s not one to fight about it). Robbing graves isn’t particularly legal work; one gets the feeling that Arthur leaving jail is not a one-time occurrence. When he gets home, his “co-workers”, so to speak, are elated to see him, and their energy is in sharp contrast to his deeply subdued demeanor. Nothing about this man (or the movie as a whole) feels in-place or in-time. Arthur is tall and his white suit doesn’t quite fit him. He’s an Englishman deep into the Italian country. He’s foggy and hazy and distant and at times frustratingly enigmatic and, still sharing qualities with the film itself, reflecting his wounded soul.

Rohrwacher’s fantasy is far from that of Dune. O’Connor has some sort of prophetic ability, able to feel, in some way, the presence of the dead and their artifacts, although it is hardly discussed and used sparingly. It is no surprise that Rohrwacher cites Buñuel as important to her: like the works of the Spanish master before her, the surreal in the world of “La Chimera” is, at most, vaguely alluded to.

Unlike Buñuel, however, Rohrwacher’s film, in its rural locales, is visually textured. The outside-of-time feeling that the film emits is reflected in the beautiful and detailed images. This is a countryside of Italy where you can smell the air and feel the heat of the Italian sun. When the clothing of certain characters becomes dirtied (as is O’Connor’s white suit, which he wears almost throughout the whole film), there’s a certain authenticity to the mess. Perhaps it comes from O’Connor’s dedication to method acting, perhaps it comes from the stylistic choices Rohrwacher uses to create the rich sense of environment, taking advantage of her ability to create clear yet hazy sequences to give the feeling of dreaminess throughout.

While Rohrwacher is a skilled driver of images, this is ultimately O’Connor’s vehicle. The “Paris, Texas” comparison is inevitable: much like Harry Dean Stanton in that film, O’Connor is brilliant in stoicism, able to convey worlds of pain in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) an overwhelming silence throughout the movie. His casting is fascinating; in a film about a stranger unable to find himself wholly at home amongst the living, the usage of an Englishman, even one with near-fluent Italian, works incredibly well. Arthur is unable to connect with anyone around him, struggling intensely to communicate; instead, he rejects those around him in his pursuit of the dead. It is through this underscore of grief that the movie is at its best. The first image of the movie is of Beniamina, played in different aspect ratios and 16mm by Yle Vianello, and when the weight of her absence becomes clearer in the second half of the film, it becomes an emotionally resonant driving force for O’Connor’s character.

In Greek mythology, the legend of Orpheus centers on his descent to the underworld to find his wife, Eurydice. While he softens the heart of Hades, he is given a near-impossible task to try to save Eurydice: she can come back to Earth if she walks behind him and he never turns around. As he crosses back onto the surface of the world, he turns around in his eagerness, and since she never crossed over, she is taken back into the underworld. “La Chimera” is not about the act of the turning back, but what it looks like for Orpheus, already haven turned around, to look for Eurydice, unable to live back on the surface of the world. Only in his dreams does Arthur see the face of his beloved again. The Chimera of Arezzo is recognizable in isolation from its partner, but forever will the core part of its identity be lost.

A special thank you: The screening for the film was provided to the Commentator by Film at Lincoln Center. “La Chimera” is playing there now.

Recommended in theaters:

“Monkey Man”: Dev Patel’s directorial debut is a thrilling and wild amalgamation of political and spiritual influences interwoven in an exciting action movie, even if the early pacing is sometimes awkward. In theaters everywhere.

“A Different Man”: Sebastian Stan does some of his best work in this dark, rich, and ultimately hilarious story about identity and obsession, supported by a wonderful Adam Phearson and a tight script from the deeply New Yorker Aaron Schimberg. Playing at the New Directors/New Films Festival at the Lincoln Center, in some theaters in September.

“Late Night with the Devil”: Rarely is a horror comedy this funny or this frightening, and David Dastmalchian is lights-out in a rare lead performance. In theaters everywhere.


Photo Caption: The Tuscinian countryside, near where Rohrwacher is from and where the story takes place.

Photo Credit: Schwoaze / Pixabay