'La Chimera' review: This Italian fable features a magical movie ending An archeological tomb robber wanders Italy, haunted by the memory of lost love. La Chimera is a playful fable that builds to not one but two thrilling scenes of underground exploration.

Review

Movie Reviews

'La Chimera' is marvelous — right up to its most magical ending

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new Italian drama "La Chimera," the English actor Josh O'Connor plays a tomb raider with a gift for finding buried relics in the Tuscan countryside. The movie also features Isabella Rossellini, and it's the latest work from the prize-winning writer-director Alice Rohrwacher. Our film critic, Justin Chang, has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The wonderful 42-year-old filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher practices a kind of cinema that I've come to think of as Italian magical neorealism. She gives us portraits of hardscrabble lives in poor rural communities, but they're graced by a whimsical, almost fable-like sense of enchantment. Rohrwacher's 2014 film, "The Wonders," was a lyrical drama about a family of Tuscan beekeepers. She followed that in 2018 with "Happy As Lazzaro," about a group of sharecroppers on a tobacco farm whose story moves from picaresque comedy to aching tragedy.

Her marvelous new movie, "La Chimera," follows in much the same vein, with one key difference. While Rohrwacher has generally worked with non-professional Italian actors, this time, she's cast the English actor Josh O'Connor, best known for his Emmy-winning performance as a young Prince Charles on "The Crown."

But O'Connor's character here doesn't give off even a whiff of royalty, even if his name is Arthur. When we first meet him, he's asleep on a train bound for his old stomping grounds in Tuscany. He's just been released from prison after serving some time for the crime of grave-robbing.

Arthur has a mysterious archaeological talent. Wielding a divining rod, he can detect the presence of buried artifacts, many of which date back to the Etruscan civilization, more than 2,000 years ago. Arthur works with a group of tombaroli, or tomb raiders, who rely on him to figure out where to dig.

In this scene, many of those old friends welcome him back with a parade, one of several moments in which Rohrwacher briefly channels the vibrant human chaos of a Fellini film.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken).

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CHANG: Arthur is a little reluctant to rejoin his old gang, since they let him take the rap after their last job, but he doesn't seem to have anything else to do or anywhere else to go. He may be an outsider. His Italian throughout is decent, but far from perfect. But it's the only place in the world that feels remotely like home, and O'Connor plays him with such a deep sense of melancholy that it feels almost special when his handsome, careworn face breaks into a warm smile.

It's not immediately clear what Arthur wants. Unlike his cohorts, he doesn't seem all that interested in making money off their spoils. The answer turns out to lie in his dreams, which are haunted by a beautiful young woman named Beniamina, the love of his life, whom he's lost under unclear circumstances.

And so Arthur's determination to go underground becomes a metaphor for his longing for an irretrievable past. Beniamina is the Eurydice to his Orpheus, and he wants her back desperately.

Arthur is still close to Beniamina's mother, Flora, played with a wondrous mix of warmth and imperiousness by the great Isabella Rossellini. Her presence here made me think of her filmmaker father, the neorealist titan Roberto Rossellini, a fitting association for a movie about how the past is forever seeping into the present.

One of the pleasures of Alice Rohrwacher's filmmaking is the way she subtly blurs our sense of time. "La Chimera" is set in the 1980s, but it could be taking place 20 years earlier or 20 years later. Rohrwacher and her brilliant cinematographer, Helene Louvart, shot the movie on a mix of film stocks and sometimes tweak the image in ways that evoke the cinematic antiquities of the silent era. As sorrowful as Arthur's journey is, there's a playfulness to Rohrwacher's sensibility that keeps pulling you in, inviting you to get lost in the movie's mysteries.

One of the story's most significant characters is Italia, played by the Brazilian actor Carol Duarte, who works in Flora's household. Italia is a bit of an odd duck with a beguiling bluntness about her, and she might be just the one to pull Arthur out of his slump and get him to stop living in the past.

I won't give away what happens, except to say that "La Chimera" builds to not one but two thrilling scenes of underground exploration in which Arthur must finally figure out his life's purpose, not by using a divining rod but by following his heart. And it leads to the most magical movie ending I've seen in some time and also the most real.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The New Yorker. He reviewed "La Chimera." It's now in theaters. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the controversial legacy of Captain James Cook. Our guest will be historian Hampton Sides. His new book is about the British sea captain's four-year voyage to chart lands from the Arctic Circle to the South Pacific. His treatment of Indigenous people left him regarded by many as an agent of colonialism. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram, @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

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