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TIFF23: The Poignant La Chimera Transfixes

La Chimera premiered at Cannes 2023 in May to a delighted audience and bewildered the minds of critics. Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher wrote and directed the film with consulting writers Carmela Covino and Marco Pettenello. The story follows Arthur (Josh O’Connor), an obsessed archaeologist on the outs hunting for Etruscan treasures that may lead him to a gateway to the afterlife where he may reunite with his lost girlfriend, Beniamina (Yile Vianello). He works with a rowdy group of grave robbers seeking riches rather than the enlightenment Arthur seeks. Although Arthur is occasionally swept up into the “band of tombaroli” mischievous ways and frivolous exploits, the deep-rooted chase in Arthur underlines the whole film’s story and final moments.

TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) showcases La Chimera as part of the Special Presentations series on Tuesday, September 12 and Thursday, September 14. I had the privilege to enjoy the film at a packed private screening for Press and Industry on TIFF’s opening day.

La Chimera. The band of tombaroli at a grave site in the Tuscany country side

La Chimera transported me. The combination of Alice Rohrwacher’s unique style, cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s brilliant eye and Josh O’Connor’s transfixing performance pulled me in for an incredible, long, poignant journey.

Set in 1980s Tuscany, this fantastical drama plays with the period’s eccentric style and spirit with a lighthearted appetite only to wash the audience with sombre notes of macabre as the ghosts of graves haunt our hero. The 80s fashion brings an obscene humourous edge to characters in the band of tombaroli, with most notable performances from Vincenzo Nemolato as Pirro and Ramona Fiorini as Fabriana.

With the film running nearly two hours long, Rohrwacher uses the 133 minutes to her advantage, structuring the film into acts and demonstrating the passage of time comedically through montages and songs. There was so much story and character to stick my teeth into through the runtimes stretch; however, I also noticed some story elements could have been cut down with little consequence to the film’s depth. Not to say the film dragged because it didn’t, but there were scenes and lingering shots which played emotionally or temporally which we could have done without. That’s just me, though; I usually think films can be shorter these days.

La Chimera. The band of tombaroli at a local Tuscany festival.

Not only do we follow the grieving Arthur through his journey, but we also meet Beniamina’s mother, Flora (Isabella Rossellini), who is in strict denial of her daughter’s death and frequently asks after Arthur’s search for her. The two character’s relationship was slightly perplexing, with mixed emotions coming from Arthur’s motivations; sometimes, he was so genuine and delicate with Flora, and at others, Arthur would ransack her house and manipulate the woman’s goodwill for his means. Flora and Arthur are linked in this complicated delusion, and the actors’ portrayal of that relationship is remarkable. Josh O’Connor straddled a very delicate line in his connection with Isabella Rossellini on screen; a complicated love comes across so beautifully. Rossellini’s performance is subtle but heartwrenching, especially when sharing the room with the actresses who play her other–alive—daughters.

I can’t rave enough about Josh O’Connor’s acting. He gives one of those prized performances where you can somehow see the character’s thoughts turning ahead of action or dialogue. Arthur has a very internal arc which goes through waves of progress with conflicting morals, selfish desires, and undeniable, unalterable hurt. All the while, this plays out in O’Connor’s facial expressions and mumbling grunts or growls, the physical anger out lashing, the trancelike fixations following his feelings to a grave site or a temple.

No doubt, credit is owed to director Alice Rohrwacher, whose eye and creative mind craft a platform for ingenious performances with unique decisions enhancing the visual senses with colours and sounds, fiddling with temporal motion and inventing this off-kilter reality for actors to play in and audiences to absorb.

La Chimera. Josh O'Connor as Arthur and Carol Duarte as the beach at night.

In particular, I think of the night when the band of tombaroli, with Arthur and Italia (Carol Duarte) in tow, attend an outdoor public party with live music, a dance floor and drinks. At this point, Arthur and Italia have only had stolen moments behind Flora’s back in her mansion, where Italia squats with her two children, masquerading as an aspiring singer under Flora’s instruction. Carol Duarte’s performance throughout the film is enchanting; she and O’Connor have brilliant chemistry. However, this scene sequence from the party to the beach is a divine series of character peaks and decisions that lead to an emotional conflict between the two flirting, lustrous, wayward souls. From Duarte’s dancing to O’Connor’s jealous butt-in, their staggering, canoodling walk, and then the moment Italia sees Arthur for who he truly is, we see a novella within the novel of La Chimera. It’s a mini-play. The colours, style and emotional turmoil are in their own storytelling category, and each actor plays their role beautifully and raw. Within this one sequence, I could dissect for hours.

That is Alice Rohrwacher’s direction and brilliance shining through; La Chimera is an intricately layered story with so much to tell rooted in the history she experienced as a girl raised in Tuscany at this time. I can’t wait to peek at the film again, only to see more pick up on details and nuances I wasn’t privy to on my first watch. I haven’t experienced a film like this in some time, and I’m not quite ready to let go to find another.

Written by Isobel Grieve

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