IN THEATERS TODAY: Alice Rohrwacher’s “LA CHIMERA”

Alice Rohrwacher’s latest film, “La Chimera,” is an ambitious and self-aware rumination on life, death, and heartbreak. Through the imaginative style of its director, the film is playful and charming yet ultimately heartbreaking.

Using multiple film formats, Rohrwacher’s visual choices (a mixture of 35 & 16mm along with Super 16) create an occasionally magical spell. While the story is rooted in reality, DP Hélène Louvart weaves in and out of reality and a kind of cinematic dream state, representing the mindset of the film’s lead character.

Josh O’Connor stars as Arthur, a glum Englishman and former archaeologist who lives a nomadic life. As the film begins, Arthur has just been released from prison after serving time for grave robbing. Still mourning his lost love, Beniamina (Yle Vianello), he returns to the disheveled Tuscan villa owned by her mother Flora (Isabella Rossellini, gifted with one of her best roles in decades). Save for Flora, the consensus is that Beniamina is dead, yet the wheelchair-bound mother selflessly hopes for her daughter’s return. In stark contrast, Beniamina’s sisters (a collectively grim bunch) just want to put their mom in a nursing home.

Flora’s housekeeper and singing protege, Italia (Carol Duarte), is a luminous young mother who may offer the promise of a more peaceful future for Arthur’s lost soul. He is attracted to the awkward young woman, but Arthur’s melancholy prevents him from seeing the sunny future that could save his heart.

Another reason for Arthur’s return to the region is to reconnect with the charmingly cynical group of grave robbers who have partnered with him on his “adventures’. The crew makes their living from the illegal trade of Etruscan artifacts, but this bunch (and Arthur) are far from bad people. In a lighthearted rationalization of their activities, Arthur’s cohorts defend what they do by noting that the Etruscans are long dead and have no use for their belongings. For these locals, the word “theft” does not play into it, and the ethical arguments are elusive. This is quite the jovial gang of grave robbers (dubbed the “tombaroli”) who take in the pleasures of life and mean no harm to anyone.

Written by Carmela Covino, Marco Pettinello, and director Rohrwacher, “La Chimera” parallels the search for treasure with the search for meaning in one’s life. Through Arthur’s story, the writers create an existential journey of self; Arthur’s melancholy dreamscape and philosophical musings are illuminated by the sun-drenched imagery of the Italian countryside. Surrounded by beauty and kindness, Arthur’s discontent continues to be his unwanted life companion. As he seems forever tethered to his lost love, the character becomes the film’s “Orpheus” on an abstract, at times, Dante-esque excursion of the soul. Does Arthur’s heart still belong to the deceased Beniamina, or can he allow himself to give it to Italia? This reveals the film’s most important quandary: In death, are our possessions still our own? Do we keep love buried when a partner goes? Do the dead and their stories deserve to stay buried?

As Arthur digs up the past (already burdened with the weight of his own), the words of William Blake echo through his tribulations, “The ruins of time build mansions in eternity.”

Alice Rohrwacher’s “La Chimera” is an absorbing tale of love lost and a soul in search of meaning; a delicate and profound comment on death and memory.

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