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Movie Review: Alice Rohrwacher’s tombaroli tale ‘La Chimera’ is pure magic

Movie Review: Alice Rohrwacher’s tombaroli tale ‘La Chimera’ is sheer delight.

When we talk of “movie magic,” we generally think of the bikes gaining liftoff in “E.T.” But it applies just as much to Alice Rohrwacher’s magnificent “La Chimera,” a grubbily transcendent folk tale about a cinema whose enchantment has been buried.

“Were you dreaming?”
a train conductor asks the sleeping Arthur, a distant, temperamental Brit in Italy known only by his rumpled cream-colored linen suit. The answer is yes. Radiant memories of Arthur’s deceased lover, Benjamina, haunt his nightmares, propelling him on a weird journey through Tuscany’s underground graves.

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Arthur, who possesses a mysterious ability to locate old relics, appears to be under a sad spell. It’s early 1980s. Arthur has been released from jail after serving time for grave robbery. The grungy, carnivalesque crew of tombaroli – tomb robbers who pilfer Etruscan treasures — greets Arthur’s return with heroism, viewing him as a royal rather than a bankrupt criminal. They nickname him “maestro.”

Arthur can point out where to dig with incredible accuracy. In one scenario, he uses a short, bent branch for dowsing. “La Chimera” appears to emerge in much the same way — an earthy, mesmerizing buried gem with extraordinary drawing power.

The exact moment I fell completely in love with “La Chimera” — and this is a film to adore — is an early montage in which Arthur and his fellow scavengers flee across the countryside, hiding in fields from stupid cops, as a folk song about the tombarolo Englishman is sung. “La Chimera,” the third in a loose trilogy for Rohrwacher after “The Wonders” and “Happy as Lazzaro,” is the finest expression yet of her cinema of “magical neo-realism.”

Rohrwacher is deeply fascinated by the past. Its ability to exert influence in the present. The huge but microscopic distance between long ago and now. “Happy as Lazzaro” wonderfully brought a 19th-century peasant into the present day.

“La Chimera” is even more captivating and melancholy. The tombaroli form a joyous band, but Arthur’s struggle is overshadowed by death. “He was looking for a passage to the afterlife,” one of his companions says in the film, one of just a few clear references.

Arthur and his companions gain money by selling their excavated Etruscan items. However, he is motivated less by money and more by a desire to reach the dead, specifically Benjamina. How deep will he dig? Will the blackness of the underworld engulf him?

Arthur pays sporadic trips to Benjamina’s mother, Flora, who, like him, has failed to accept her daughter’s death. She greets him politely and deferentially, with an old-world demeanor. Flora’s other daughters snicker because she only allows men to smoke in the house.

Arthur meets Italia, a singing pupil who Flora claims is tone deaf. But she could be the film’s sharpest observer. Only Italy is outraged by the theft of the graves. In other ways, she embodies the era that the tombs commemorate. It is observed that the Etruscans elevated women in society, which is one of the relics of the past that “La Chimera” brings forward into the present.

In “La Chimera,” the past and present interact in strange ways. The biggest Etruscan discovery, a magnificent subterranean cave, is made on a beach with a factory just down the coast. However, the film’s most amazing excavation is that of Arthur’s grieving soul. O’Connor is beautiful in a part that necessitates a delicate mix of concrete realism and otherworldly myth.

O’Connor’s performance, like so many other aspects of “La Chimera,” is both captivating and perplexing. You can’t help but wonder how a film can be so adept at balancing the past and the present. Rohrwacher wants to find the material of fairy tales—a type of storytelling magic. “Were you dreaming?” A good question.

The Motion Picture Association has not rated “La Chimera,” a Neon release. In Italian, with English subtitles. Running time: 133 minutes. Four stars out of four.



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