TIFF 2023: La Chimera Finds Meaning and Mystery in What Lies Under the Surface

22 September 2023 / by Quinton Bradshaw
TIFF 2023: La Chimera Finds Meaning and Mystery in What Lies Under the Surface
Alice Rohrwacher’s dazzling and surreal drama stars Josh O’Connor as a linen-clad drifter with a talent for tomb raiding

Perhaps you, like I, were rather devastated to hear that Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers was getting pushed from its fall pre-award season release. Well, my friends, I come with good news: while you wait, I’ve got another Italian-directed film starring Josh O’Connor for you to check out. It’s moving, funny, thought-provoking, dreamily shot, and one of the best things I saw at this year’s TIFF. 


The film I’m talking about is La Chimera, directed by Alice Rohrwacher. Set in 1980s Italy, at its centre is Josh O’Connor as Arthur, a former archaeological scholar with an almost supernatural talent with a dowsing rod. (The English actor, best known for playing Charles in The Crown, learned Italian for this project and speaks it for most of the film.) Arthur lends his skill to a rogue-ish band of Italian tomb-raiders, who pillage the burial sites of ancient Etruscans for relics to sell to the mysterious Spartaco. While his associates are in it for a big score, hoping to strike it rich, Arthur is searching for something. He’s haunted by a lost lover, Beniamina, and shares this preoccupation with her mother Flora, played by the legendary Isabella Rossellini. Flora lives in a draughty, crumbling estate with her student and servant, Italia, who is pursuing dreams of her own.   


If that summary leaves you a little unsure where exactly the plot is heading, well, I think that’s kind of the point. There’s absolutely a story here, but it’s not a straight line. It meanders and takes its time. La Chimera is a film that I enjoyed as much for the look, feel, and form as I did the story. It’s a gorgeously shot movie, switching between 35mm, Super 16, and 16mm filming to straddle the line between Arthur’s real life and dreams. Sometimes you’re not immediately sure which side of the line you’re on, lending the film a visually surreal quality that matches its dreamlike tone. The colours are vivid and the frames are full of life and detail. Montage sequences are playfully edited and scored, and occasionally sped up for comic effect. Alice Rohrwacher’s Italy isn’t the one I’m used to seeing on friends’ Instagram feeds – it’s rural, slightly run down and ramshackle, yet charming.  


Much the same could be said of the cast of characters at the centre of the film. Josh O’Connor is scruffy and brooding in dirty linen suits, giving a soulful performance as a man consumed by his loss. Arthur seems mostly content to be swept along by the antics of his comrades, a colourful troupe of Italian louches who spend their non-tomb-raiding hours eating, drinking, scheming, and partying. Still, even as Arthur gamely tags along, there’s a sense that he’s holding his life at arm’s length. Maybe this is why he’s drawn to Carol Duarte’s Italia, who also feels like she has yet to find her place. Meanwhile, the rest of the tomb raiders are dealing with the somewhat more mundane struggle of making ends meet. They don’t steal from the dead for the thrill of it, but because it’s the best way they can think of to afford a good life without working themselves to death. 


Watching these on-screen characters unearthing treasures long-buried, I too felt like I was discovering something rare and unusual. La Chimera has an almost mythic quality to it. Arthur recalls a central figure in a legend or folk-tale, possessing mysterious talents and an inexplicable connection to the underworld. His search for something beyond the boundaries of life has the feeling of a quest, complete with a ragtag band of misfits and a few unexpected detours.  When it finally reached its conclusion, I was momentarily surprised, then quite sure it couldn’t have ended any other way. 


There are some ideas for viewers to chew on here, too. When the characters in a film make their living robbing tombs, it can raise some ethical quandaries and big questions. What do we owe our dead? How should we live until it’s our time to join them? Then what? With La Chimera, Alice Rohrwacher has made a sparkling, soulful film that doesn’t give easy answers, but finds plenty of mystery and meaning in the asking.