An Englishman called Arthur (Josh O’Connor) has just been released from an Italian prison. He travels towards Riparbella, in Tuscany. He is immediately rejected and nearly ejected from a train because of his aggressive, haughty behaviour and his shabby looks (his clothes are dirty, his hair dishevelled). He seeks an old aristocratic friend called Flora (Isabella Rossellini), who inhabits a large mansion. He is disappointed to find out that her daughter Beniamina is now gone, but he’s determined to be reunited with young woman (even if that means departing from this world, in the spiritual sense). He begins to seek Etruscan antiques buried in the region’s rich ground with a forked metal rod. His dowsing ambitions lead him to a gang of grave-robbers. They join forces in search of a something bigger (and perhaps help Arthur to achieve his desire to find Beniamina at any price).
A cheerful young Brazilian woman called Italia (Carol Duarte) works for Flora. For some unexplained reason, she conceals her very own children in the house. Italia and Arthur bond, and she soon assists him in his newfound criminal life. The little gang eventually come across a very large find that could change their life. But the Italian authorities and a German businesswoman (played by the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher; both sisters are born to a German father, as their surname suggests) also have archeological ambitions, and could foil their plans. What follows is a barely coherent, however visually bewitching story.
Alice Rohrwacher’s quaint new drama is a tribute to Italy itself, a country deeply rooted in the antiquity, while also seeking a more modern soul. The film title refers to the Mediterranean nation’s unsuccessful attempt to blend the old with the new. Italian culture is a monstrous blend of Italian, English, Brazilian, German, Etruscan, and other cultures. These don’t blend together seamlessly. Chimera also reveals that Italy is constantly in search of an ancient treasure. People are desperately seeking an elusive past, but instead have to make do with a more tenable present. The Etruscan people were a non-Indo-European civilisation that disappeared about 2,00o years ago, leaving secrets buried in the ground, and also lending their name to the Italian region (“Tuscany” comes from “Etruscan”). The fact that precisely the foreign maid is called Italia seems to emphasise this problematic notion of national identity further. These nationalities meet, celebrate and haggle boisterously, in good Fellini-esque style. One of them might even lose their head (literally).
The linguistic chimera is also prominent. Arthur and Flora speak a blend of Italian and English. Italia speaks a mixture of Italian and Brazilian Portuguese. And the German businessman speaks English and Italian with the odd German sentence thrown in. A European Babylon of tongues.
Chimera isn’t a straight-forward drama, with a clear storyline and characters with a logical motive. It is a film infused with poetry, symbolism and intertext. Perhaps a little too much. It becomes intoxicated by the abundance of culture and aesthetic references, filtered by the director’s idiosyncratic lens. One example of such idiosyncrasies is a bizarre upside down tilting shot repeated several times for no apparent reason. Rohrwacher created a similarly lyrical film five years ago, the fascinating Happy as Lazzaro (which also premiered in Cannes). She was a lot more successful in crafting a hypnotic experience then, perhaps because she focussed on one specific aspect of Italy: religion. This allowed the director to meditate more profoundly on topics such as compassion, trust and selflessness. Chimera does not allow for such meditations because it’s too convoluted. Too chimeric. The director has decidedly moved from poetical territory into quirky zone.
Rohrwacher’s idiosyncrasies, however, are not as chafing as Wes Anderson’s. His latest film (which also just premiered at Cannes) is strictly defined by the director’s eccentric antics. It’s as enjoyable to watch as sticking multiple needles to your eyes. The Italian director is more successful at balancing out the display of mannerisms with the movie’s cultural capital, plus it possesses an emotional curve.
Chimera premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Cannes Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It shows at the Best of Festivals section of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, and also at the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam.