La Chimera
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film ‘The Chimera’ review: Josh O’Connor is a grieving Tomb Raider in the best Indiana Jones film of the year

‘The Chimera’ review: Josh O’Connor is a grieving Tomb Raider in the best Indiana Jones film of the year

La Chimera

Just when it seemed Cannes couldn’t get any worse for ‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Fate’, it turns out that James Mangold’s $300 million sequel wasn’t even the best film of the festival about a sad and grumpy archaeologist chasing a band of grave robbers across the waters of Italy to prevent them from selfishly exploiting a priceless artifact from before the birth of Christ. What are the odds?

Strange as this coincidence may be, it’s no surprise that Alice Rohrwacher’s new film is better than a Disney blockbuster that shares the same general milieu, but it’s worth pointing out that the art house version of this story is far more entertaining than the blockbuster. of the studio Take. She’s also shorter (if only slightly), sexier (by a lot), and Isabella Rossellini-er (imagine her doing a catty, live-action riff on her character from “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”). She even has a better villain, played to perfection by an obvious but unexpected European star whose performance here could fit into a summer tentpole without missing a beat.

But enough kicking dirt on an old relic that never should have dusted off again in the first place: there’s a new discovery to celebrate. The third and most romantic installment in Rohrwacher’s informal trilogy that explores the relationship between Italy’s past and present, “La Chimera” sees the Tuscan director return to the rustic charm and eternal regret of “Marvels” and “Felice as Lazarus” to stretch them across a richly textured canvas ranging from ancient Etruria to “The Crown”.

It begins with a man played by Josh O’Connor – notoriously non-Italian – who dreams of the woman he loved and lost. His name is Arthur, she is called Beniamina, and this idyllic vision of their reunion is abruptly interrupted by a conductor aboard a splendid country train as it rumbles through the Florentine countryside during the mid-1980s. “Sorry, you’ll never know how it ends now,” chuckles the conductor.

But Arthur is not one to give up. Legend tells of a buried door that connects this world to the next, and this grumpy archaeologist is so determined to find it that he’s become the leader of a ragtag band of grave robbers – lovable grave robbers, in short – in the little village where his Beniamina once lived. He offers the party his sorcerer-like ability to scrutinize the location of ancient treasures, in exchange for them excavating for him. Stealing 2,000-year-old vases and statues from the earth isn’t exactly legal work (Arthur is returning from the last of his many prison stints at the beginning of the film), but the group makes a tidy profit by selling the 2,000-year-old vases and statues of a year they find in a mysterious local compound called Spartacus, operating as a Bond villain from their secret lair atop the local animal hospital.

While that may seem like a tenable existence for a depressed British expat, Arthur isn’t well. O’Connor – pronouncing most of his dialogue in an almost fluent Italian that the other characters enjoy correcting at every opportunity – plays him as a man possessed. It’s not just the ticket agent: Everyone the talker to Arthur seems to wake him from a dream he was just beginning to believe in, which helps explain why the huge Englishman is often as short as he is tall.

Dressed in the same billowing white suit for nearly the entire film (the laundry gets dirtier with each scene as Arthur becomes more and more absorbed in his obsession with locating Beniamina), O’Connor’s exquisite performance seems to channel the haunted turn of Harry Dean Stanton in “Paris, Texas”; less ghostly in his physicality, but equally intangible, like a man played by his own shadow. Arthur straddles the liminal space between life and death as ruggedly beautiful as with which Rohrwacher traces the overlap between the sacred and the profane, and therefore the central question of “The Chimera” is not whether he will be able to find his lost love (which, by definition of the film’s title, must always remain a mirage), as much as whether will be able to stop looking.

The only people who seem capable of distracting Arthur from that obsession are Beniamina’s sick mother (Rossellini, hilarious as a Miss Havisham type with a poisoned tongue who ruthlessly teases anyone who sets foot in her abandoned villa), and the new music student of old, an off-key beauty (Carol Duarte plays intentionally named Italy, serving the reality of Miranda July as a local dopey dope with a penchant for the unofficial adoption of orphaned children). If Beniamina is the emblem of the past, Italy naturally embodies the present. Could this be Arthur’s salvation?

THE grave robbers pokes fun at Italy as a “broomstick”, while Arthur would seem to be more interested in a shovel, but his budding affection for her is as multilayered and difficult to analyze as the film’s feelings about Etruscan antiques Arthur helps unearth. THE grave robbers see the things they steal as inanimate chunks of junk, and laugh at the ancients who never wanted to be seen again – who buried their treasures as if they were chunks of their own soul. The most touching of Rohrwacher’s playful flourishes, including fast-paced action and flipped frames, shows a layer of skin disappearing from a tomb full of buried artifacts after being exposed to the open air for the first time in 2,000 years, as if the just the act of setting eyes on these things was enough to rob them of their beauty.

For Arthur, however, the unseen is the only true beauty left in this world, which lends a slight irony to the unspeakable magnificence of Hélène Louvart’s cinematography. Alternating between 35mm, super 16 and 16mm (and giving each format a different aspect ratio, so that Arthur only dreams in super fuzzy 4:3), Louvart helps level the playing field between the imagined purity of the past and the pastel lycra that everyone is wearing in the present.

“The Chimera” gradually surrenders to Arthur’s mania. At one point, the obsession with him becomes so complete that I find myself wondering if all the other characters we meet are spirits trapped between two different realms of existence. Even in the proper context, that reading doesn’t make much sense, but it sure would help explain the unforgettable shot in the film’s opening minutes, when Arthur peeks out of the train cabin to find everyone else on board staring at him. in the hallway, which might be as close as you get to capturing the energy of “Spirited Away.”

Like all films in Rohrwacher’s trilogy, the bucolic first half of “The Chimera” gives way to a more industrialized and faster-paced second half, with the energy here rising towards something that could almost pass for a actual The movie “Indiana Jones” — especially after Spartacus’ henchmen stole the most valuable find of our grave robbers. But even after a clearly defined group of “bad guys” emerges, Rohrwacher herself resists any kind of moral judgment.

In fact, the film’s ending, predictable as it may be, is so poetic and moving because it holds to an internal logic of its own. “Does it belong to everyone,” Italia asks an abandoned train station which he discovers at one point, “or does it belong to no one?” It’s the last question “The Chimera” asks about our relationship to the past, and one that this lush, lived-in adventure leaves tantalizingly open, even if there’s precious little doubt as to when Arthur belongs or to whom.

Grade: B+

“The Chimera” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. NEON will release it theatrically later this year.

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