When asked, in 2019, to explain why her first three features begin during the night, Alice Rohrwacher recalled the long drives she would take with her beekeeping father as a child and how, upon arrival, she’d play a game by closing her eyes: “I’d have to work it out from what I could hear, not from what I could see, so I’d listen to the place and the information would enter my mind––and then I’d open my eyes.” More than most filmmakers, Rohrwacher’s particular genius seems tied to her way of thinking: that cinema is less a reflection of our imagination than a natural extension. The best ideas in her cinema seem plucked from nowhere (Lazzaro‘s time jump; the red cake in Le Pupille), yet arrive fully formed––even organic.
Premiering on the final day of Cannes, her new film doesn’t begin at night; instead it’s as if the camera (operated once again by the great Hélène Louvart) is peeking through a Viewmaster. It’s one of many lovely ideas in La Chimera, speaking both to Rohrwacher’s sensibility as a director and the film’s wistful tone. In another, a grave-robber, Arthur (played by Josh O’Connor), uses a divining rod in the shape of a wishbone to find a tomb. (“It’s about tomb robbers,” Rohrwacher explained to me a month ago at Visions du Reel, “people that steal from the past.”) In the most majestic shot, an ancient and recently headless marble is hoisted above the colorful, LEGO-block containers of a shipping yard. Like much of Chimera, it is an image typical of her best work: beautiful in and of itself, rich in temporal and cultural contrasts. (Though here perhaps a touch reminiscent of a moment in Call Me By Your Name.)
Having given voice to the victims of a kind of modern serfdom in Happy as Lazzaro, Chimera focuses on the economic standing of another class in Italian society, as well as the moral and spiritual cost of selling one’s own history for a quick buck. (“It’s like we filmmakers,” Rohrwacher continued at VdR, “we all steal from the past.”) Arthur, we learn, is less the ring leader of this ragtag gang (a lively bunch who appear a bit like the traveling circus family of her earlier documentary, Un Piccolo Spettacolo) than its gifted guide. The group considers his ability near-supernatural, and he tends to pass out after doing it, as if touched by some higher power. Mourning the death of a great love, he has also begun to think a little deeper about the significance of his crimes. His resolve is further tested when he catches the eye of one of his lost love’s sisters––named Italia, of all things, and played at a delightful skip by Carol Duarte (The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão).
O’Connor isn’t the only big name in Rohrwacher’s cast. Her sister Alba, as ever, is present: a vision in absurdly large and yellow shoulder pads, she steals a couple scenes as a snooty artifact dealer. Better still is Isabella Rossellini: appearing here as warmth incarnate, she plays the matriarch of Italia’s sprawling clan of sisters. (If that metaphor isn’t clear, Rohrwacher confirms it in a later scene when one character looks to the camera, Fleabag-style, and says, “If the Etruscans hadn’t been here, there wouldn’t be all this machismo.”) If Happy as Lazzaro took its cues from Pasolini and his everyday saints, the aesthetic pleasures of Chimera are pure Fellini: cinema as a kind of dreamy circus. As produced by NEON, there’s also a nice bit of budget onscreen: we get a miraculous sequence on a steam-powered barge, a full Epiphany Day parade, and a nicely kinetic dance at a seaside carnival. Mumbling in scruffy white linens, O’Connor is an affable leading presence. So why, you start to wonder, does La Chimera feel a bit lame?
Opening to plenty acclaim in Cannes and leaving empty-handed, this is the first of Rohrwacher’s films that rings contrived. Repeating some of the aesthetic choices first seen in her Oscar-nominated mid-length gem Le Pupille––janky fast-forwards and folksy, exposition-heavy songs performed into camera, or: the creeping sense of something asking to be memed––Chimera comes off more quirky than charming. This is a fine line, and a consequential one. At other times it’s practically cloying: just when one thinks they’ve shirked the film’s glossary of Italian hand gestures from their mind, you’re asked to endure a full conversation. With its cast of adorable kids, Pupille was no less cutesy, but that film held the dual free-passes of taking place at Christmas and lasting just 40 minutes. As Chimera reaches the halfway point of its 133, such whimsy has already begun to gnaw.
Nobody who saw Happy as Lazzaro will ever forget the way that organ music left the church or the magic of Adriano Tardiolo’s face. We glimpse that face again here in a marching band, but Tardiolo’s cameo––as well as a late one by Luca Chikovani (who played the young Tancredi)––only serve to remind us of a richer work. No director of her genius would ever really make a bad film––if such a thing even exists––but we can be wary of a change in sensibilities here. Lazzaro‘s transcendental moments felt earned because his world was coarser to the touch. With Le Pupille and La Chimera, Rohrwacher is moving towards a cinema of fewer rough edges, and a poorer one for it.
La Chimera premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival and will be released by NEON.