The Italian writer and director Alice Rohrwacher's fourth feature, La Chimera, is the story of an archeologist — known only as the Englishman in less reputable circles — with a penchant for plundering tombs and selling their buried treasures on the black market. In her filmmaking, Rohrwacher fancies herself something of an archeologist, too, albeit with less disturbing of the dead.

"In a place where a lot of people see just a bunch of stones, the Archeologists see a story," the filmmaker tells A.frame. " In a way, archeologists dig in a place and try to reconstruct the pieces that end up creating the history of that location. In cinema as well, you try to combine together all kinds of separate, individual pieces and put them together and turn them into a single thing, the way archeologists do with our past."

Set in rural Italy of the 1980s, La Chimera follows the band of tombaroli — tomb raiders — on their adventures as they dig into ancient Etruscans tombs in search of priceless historical artifacts. For Arthur (Josh O'Connor), the leader of the gang, he is in search of something greater: A mythical door to the afterlife that will reconnect him with his long-lost love. It sounds like the plot of an Indiana Jones movie, but as told by Rohrwacher, it is far more elusive than that. The romantic drama unfurls in elliptically dreamy fashion, meandering here and there as the story is unearthed in bits and pieces.

Arthur is haunted by the ghosts of the past. Rohrwacher embraces hers. La Chimera is the final installment in a loose trilogy on Italian identity following 2014's The Wonders and 2018's Happy as Lazzaro, and through her work, the filmmaker has been hailed as spearheading the revival of Italian cinema. She is often likened to Italian neorealist masters like Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini.

"I'm honored by this comparison," Rohrwacher demurs. "Those filmmakers are, to me, great teachers and masters, so it's difficult for me to imagine that I can be in their league even in a remote way."

Josh O'Connor and Alice Rohrwacher on the set of 'La Chimera.'

"Alice is a continuum of all that," says the actress Isabella Rossellini, who co-stars in the movie as Signora Flora, the aristocratic mother of Arthur's absent lover. "That is very touching to me, because, of course, my father was one of the founders of neorealism." Roberto Rossellini, with Italian filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti, was behind the movement to create a "new realism" in the aftermath of World War II. Their films centered everyday people and captured the hardships of everyday life. (The elder Rossellini brought Italian neorealism to the world stage when his film Rome, Open City won the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1946.)

"Italy was devastated, and so they made the film with whatever they could," Rossellini says. The films were frequently made with non-professional actors, filmed on location, and with minimal equipment. "They made these films that looked like documentaries. The critics then named them neorealism, meaning a realism that was new. They were very influential — all the way to American films. Of course, you've seen Alice as that. She works with actors and non-actors, and she tells the story of a plurality."

"Something that's very important to me and that I do recognize in the movies of the [neorealist] filmmakers is that they looked for and created stories that are outside of the center," Rohrwacher says for her part. "They go to marginalized areas, they go to the outskirts of town, they've gone beyond the big city, and they make movies in which the context is as important as the text. That is, the story is always included in a broader context; it is never detached from it. And in this sense, I do feel I am part of that continuum. Especially because I live in a provincial town. And to me, the context is as important as the story."

Rohrwacher was born in Fiesole, in the Tuscany region, and grew up hearing stories of local men who would go out digging at night and discover archeological artifacts that they would then sell in Switzerland. Thus arose the idea for her own tombaroli. But if Roberto Rossellini once said, "I try to capture reality, nothing else," then Rohrwacher transcends neorealism with La Chimera, venturing into a place of magic. There is a reason the story of Arthur and his lost lover recalls the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

"When I first read the script, I asked Alice, 'This film, the core of it, does it deal with death?'" recounts Rossellini. "She said, 'Not death, the beyond. There's a difference.' She's right. There's a difference, because it's not a film about death. It's also about the fact that in Italy, the presence of past lives is very, very haunting. There is a presence of other cultures and other life before us that is there, and that is the magic of Alice. She's able to incorporate that dimension."


Rohrwacher and Rosellini met through the former's sister, the actress Alba Rohrwacher, who has appeared in most of her sister's films (including the Oscar-nominated short, Le pupille) and co-starred with Rosellini in 2010's The Solitude of Prime Numbers. "We became very good friends, and Alba said, 'You've got to know my sister. She's a great filmmaker. I think she's very talented.'"

Rosellini agreed. "I think Alice is a major, major talent," she says. Especially after collaborating with her on La Chimera, "I know she's writing now, so sometimes when we call just to say 'how are you,' I say, 'Is there a part for me? Is there a part for me? I want to work with you again!'"

The feeling was mutual and then some for Rohrwacher. "It's hard to describe the happiness I feel at being able to work with Isabella," she says. "I've always been such a passionate admirer of both of her parents" — Rosellini's mother was three-time Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman — "that never would I have imagined that I could love someone even more than I love them. And that person is Isabella.

"Just for a little anecdote, when we were shooting, the set design department had brought on set a bunch of old magazines and they were all stacked up. At a certain point, they happened to fall. One magazine stood out, and on the cover, there was a photo of a newborn Isabella with her sister and her mother! I hadn't even noticed it. And she says, 'Oh, that's me as a newborn. What an incredible thing!' This is somebody who had been on the cover of a magazine from the day she was born, and yet she was able to remain so authentic, so close to reality, so down-to-earth, so generous, and so full of joy," Rohrwacher shares. "The incredible thing about Isabella is that her family history, which is so huge, is not a burden for her. It actually comes off as if it was a coincidence. She lives her personal history as if it was just an incredible history that happened to her — like a coincidence of destiny."

By John Boone


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