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La Chimera ★★1/2

Availability: Showing nationally in theaters. Not streaming at this time; see JustWatch here for future streaming availability.


Mr. In-Between


Set against an Italian backdrop of small-time tomb robbers and grifters, Arthur (“maybe English, maybe Irish”) is the man from nowhere, the ultimate outsider, though a necessary one as the robbers’ highly successful dowser, in this case using his divining rod to locate ancient Etruscan gravesites.

 

Josh O'Connor portrays Arthur as an indecipherable foreigner who both is, and is not, part of the community.

 

We first see the tall, gaunt mysterious stranger in a dream state, summoning bygone sunny days with his lover, Beniamina; then, on a train, where he is unfriendly and irascible, driving away his compartment mates. He lands in a town, waving off a ride as he walks purposefully through the hardscrabble Italian countryside. He rejects what appears to have been his community of “tombaroli”—tomb robbers—to access his make-shift hillside hovel, again unfriendly and irascible to former fellow grifters and neighbors alike. Josh O’Connor (the English actor propelled to prominence as Prince Charles in TV’s “The Crown”) portrays Arthur as an indecipherable foreigner who both is, and is not, part of the community. He’s returning from a stint in a prison, the one tombarolo caught by the law. “We didn’t know you were behind us,” a former friend tries to explain. He's more than resentful. He wants nothing to do with these people.


Arthur (Josh O'Connor), center, uses his divining rod to find buried Etruscan tombs,

leading the sometimes hapless band of tombaroli (tomb robbers).


Despite his reluctance, Arthur is soon the star of the town’s Epiphany celebration, which is much like the colorfully strange melees and parades of Federico Fellini, whom the young and yet experienced Italian director Alice Rohrwacher clearly intends to evoke in this and other scenes. Rohrwacher manages to present Arthur not as a hero or anti-hero, but as, well, something else, maybe something in between. It’s difficult to care about Mr. In-Between.


Arthur, top center, is celebrating, and is celebrated, in the town's Epiphany parade, reminiscent of a Federico Fellini scene, in this Cannes-selected film.


The tombaroli too occupy an odd space, garnering both admiration and, at a critical if over-determined moment, moral condemnation. They are neither moral nor immoral, but amoral, practicing their trade in small Etruscan objects, drinking from a 2000-year-old chalice, thinking nothing of mutilating a large and handsome statue so they can remove it from a tomb. Reminiscent of the response to the briganti of old, the town celebrates them; a troubadour sings of their exploits. But these are at best small-time crooks, even comical, bumbling men (and a few women), engaged in a practice that has been the scourge of Italy for centuries, a scourge exploited by wealthy international collectors and museums, as the film makes clear.

 

It's difficult to locate anyone with an ethical core in “La Chimera.”

 

It's difficult to locate anyone with an ethical core in “La Chimera.” A young woman with two small children comes the closest. Though named “Italia” (her name suggesting she somehow represents the nation), she too is an outsider (portrayed by Brazilian actress Carol Duarte), hiding her two small children from her less-than-upstanding employer Flora (Isabella Rossellini), who exploits Italia as an unpaid servant while giving the tone-deaf woman singing lessons. Once the children are discovered and Italia is thrown out of Flora’s house, she creates a community of women and children in an abandoned train station, defying the macho masculinity of the town’s men. It’s an affecting scene, yet one for which the viewer will be unprepared. One more in an odd set of circumstances that fail to coalesce into a meaningful whole.


Italia (Carol Duarte), left, exploited as an unpaid servant by the aging Flora (Isabella Rossellini), seems to be the one character with an ethical sensibility.


The Tuscan-born director offers a compelling if stereotypical critique of Italy—the Italy of scofflaws, petty criminals, disregard of cultural patrimony, crippling masculinity, a countryside of trash and underbrush, and people living on the edge—the Italy one sees from a passing train but rarely encounters directly. Beyond that, Rohrwacher places the compromised, unknowable character of Arthur at the center of the film, her 6th full-length feature and one that was in competition for Cannes’ 2023 Palme d’Or. As he follows his unrealizable, even opaque, dreams—his chimera—Arthur is never going to be one with the town, nor with anyone in it. Like John Wayne’s Ethan in “The Searchers” (1956), he doesn’t belong, and unlike Ethan, he has only the flicker of a moral core, an epiphany of sorts (related to Arthur’s earlier participation in the Epiphany celebration), but one that appears to come out of nowhere.


Rohrwacher has given us a morally ungrounded protagonist, arguably a man for our times. If the film were not such a hodge-podge of scenes and moments, such an incoherent statement, that would be a recipe for success. The larger problem, and one endemic to this kind of “mystery” drama, is that for the film to work the viewer needs to have just the right amount of information—not too much (then whatever is mysterious becomes clear) and not too little (whatever is mysterious remains unknowable). “La Chimera” suffers from “too little”: too little knowledge of Arthur and Italia, and the tombaroli are mere phantoms, barely people. Not only does Arthur emerge as ungrounded, but so do we.


 

Date: 2023 (2024 United States)

Director: Alice Rohrwacher

Starring: Josh O’Connor, Carol Duarte, Isabella Rossellini

Country: Italy

Languages: Italian and English; Italian subtitled in English

Runtime: 130 minutes

Other Awards: 8 wins and 27 other nominations

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