Wednesday 1 May 2024

La Chimera (Italy/France/Switzerland/Turkey 2023: Dir Alice Rohrwacher)

Josh O'Connor (looking a little like Jean-Paul Belmondo in the movie's poster) is Arthur, who when we first meet him, dishevelled in his white suit and snoozing on a train, is newly released from prison. He's woken by the ticket inspector and provides, not the usual proof of travel, but a letter of passage from his previous custodian. His crumpled good looks pique the interest of three local girls travelling in the same compartment; Arthur compares the profile of one to something ancient, which intrigues them further. But their interest wanes quickly when a cheeky travelling salesman, pointing out that Arthur is not exactly box fresh, receives a duffing up from the ex con. 

It's a brilliant start to a film which pretty much summarises what to expect in the next two hours; mysterious, beguiling but always humane. It's the late 1980s - rather accurately depicted in terms of the costumes - and Englishman Arthur is on his way back to his friends, although he eschews their plans for a homecoming party in favour of returning to his home; literally a tin shack on the side of a hill, in which examples of his 'trade' are placed. For Arthur has a skill of being able to dowse accurately to pinpoint the location of hidden artefacts. This talent is referred to as a chimera in the movie, whereas the real meaning of that word suggests something which is hoped for or illusory; an accurate definition of the whole film. 

Arthur of course has a hidden sorrow; thoughts of a lost love, Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello). While his friends wait for Arthur to return to their lucrative scavenging gig, he seeks out his former lover's mother, the mysterious Flora (Isabella Rossellini), who lives in a decaying Tuscan villa surrounded by a group of young women who may be relatives and also refer to her as 'mum'. Attending Flora is the meek housekeeper, Italia (Carol Duarte), who in turn has secret children and who nurses a desire to sing, albeit an ill advised one.

Why provide all these details? Because La Chimera is an unhurried exercise, very novel like in its disarmingly loose construction, in gathering together people who make up communities, and it's the accumulation of fairly sketchy characterisation that provides the bedrock on which to view the tortured Arthur. The ex con cannot stay away from his talent for long; he's here for one last quest, to unearth antiquities that will make he and his team rich people by selling on to the supposedly respectable dealer Spartaco (Alba Rohrwacher, the director's sister).

O'Connor is startlingly good in this; it's hard to believe that this is the same actor who portrayed Prince Charles in The Crown. In his increasingly dirty white linen suit, his penchant for cigarettes and his bemused expression, he recalls Elliott Gould's portrayal of Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's 1973 movie The Long Goodbye. His almost supernatural connection with the contents of the tombs that he plunders links him with his (assumed dead) former love via - literally - a thread.

Rohrwacher takes a lot of risks here - fourth wall breaking, some speeded up scenes redolent of silent comedy - and a freewheeling style that takes in parades, larking about and always Arthur's haunted face. Aided by Helène Louvart’s gorgeous photography La Chimera conjures up classic Italian cinema - think Fellini and De Sica - and is simply joyous.

La Chimera is released in cinemas from 10 May.

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