In Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera, the Italian writer-director’s fourth narrative feature film, the past melds with the present. Art is something to be dug up, to be discovered, regardless of its origins. A circus troupe does the digging, led by a quiet, discomforted British man named Arthur (Josh O’Connor), clad in his version of very penetrable armor, an all-white, stained suit. Arthur drifts back into town after a stint in prison, revisiting the home of his love, Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello), who’s ever-present despite her lack of tangibility. 

The art Arthur finds, via magic that has become a throughline in Rohrwacher’s work, fills him with despair and almost-bare riches. Who deserves to see the art buried with the dead? Rohrwacher meditates on Arthur and his troupe’s way of life, on the grasping at something physical, grasping at something to desperately hold onto. La Chimera can slip through one’s fingers. It often becomes hazy, unreal in its view of reality. Rohrwacher has no issues drifting to find meaning, as long as meaning is found by the end of the journey. 

O’Connor excels as this gaunt man, haunted by the woman he loves, the woman he’s just met, Carol (Carol Duarte), a hopeful-singer staying in Beniamina’s home, and the art he’s stealing in the dead of night. He’s perfect as both man and myth, a wanderer that calls a place home simply because it was his love’s home. His morality shifts and bends, far from any form of rigidity in the difference between right and wrong.

La Chimera never fails at looking beautiful. It has such a specific place and time, even if the latter of which can feel suspended in the holes Arthur’s troupe continues to dig. It’s a tremendous look at grief and the manifestation of the past. It’s painfully sad yet often light to the touch, filled with absurdist comedy and the partying delights of grave robbers. Rohrwacher even attaches class and artistic critiques in the midst of Arthur’s story, layers that unveil themselves with subsequent viewings. 

With the film now rolling out in the U.S. from NEON, I chatted with Rohrwacher about the cyclical nature of art, romantic ideals, and the universal feeling of loss. 

The Film Stage: In previous interviews you’ve mentioned the idea of making something that isn’t perfect, instead focusing on making a film that feels alive. How do you find a balance between something that’s imperfect but that you still feel satisfied with putting out into the world?

Alice Rohrwacher: This is a little bit of a slippery point when I talk about imperfection. What I’m talking about is that I see a movie as a means to an end. It’s like the divining rod that a water-diviner uses––it’s the means through which I go searching for something else––and this is a mysterious thing that’s behind the film. It’s something about mankind as a whole. So if the film is a means, not an end, the film is not there to be perfect. But it’s a tool that one can use to show a gaze and outlook on the world to reveal something about oneself. So when I talk about imperfection, what I’m talking about is this objective––it’s an objective that is outside of the movie.

For example: when we think about antique vases, considering that this movie talks about the Etruscans and the Greeks, the thing that people find most moving when they find ruins from the past isn’t finding a perfect object. But it’s actually, on the other hand, seeing a footprint from the vasemaker, for example, and perceiving that, behind that vase, there was a human being. So this is something that moves you a lot more than the base in and of itself. Therefore I think that, perhaps, I would like to make movies that bear witness to all of us that carry our fingerprints, and that can be a testimony for life.

Arthur’s morality seems to waver throughout the film. Where do you think his moral compass lands by the end of it? 

The character of Arthur is inspired by Orpheus. After Eurydice dies, he becomes unbearable. If you read the ancient texts, nobody tolerates him anymore. He’s always crying, complaining, singing––so much so that after he loses Eurydice for the second time, he is chopped up into pieces and eaten by a group. He is truly unbearable. To some extent, though, this is beautiful. He is the person who invented music; he has his lyre and, therefore, that’s where music begins. I wanted to create a character that would be similar to Orpheus. To some extent he is imprisoned in his grief and his suffering. He can be grumpy and rude. He is not empathetic at all. It’s not somebody that we can identify with. On the other hand, my wish was for the movie to be empathetic even though he is not. He stays at a distance from us as viewers but, thanks to the movie, we can feel something for him even though he is imprisoned in his suffering.

Can you talk more about that grief he’s feeling? And the idea of dealing with your grief from the outside world by actually delving into the ground, into the past? 

My challenge is creating a character that, to some extent, does not have a very clear morality or moral compass. But he is pervaded by this grief, by this pain for the loss of someone. And therefore this is what unites us to him. That feeling of loss, because all of us have lost something––all of us are familiar with that grief, with that pain for the loss of someone. Even though, perhaps, most of us stop before experiencing it to such an extent down to the end. So this is a character that is not able to see himself from the outside. Sometimes we were wondering: perhaps he’s already a ghost. Indeed, when he first appears clad in that white suit, we wonder: is he a real character? Or does he exist? Does he not? 

And there’s a scene that I consider very important, which is the scene in which we are privy to a very personal characteristic of Arthur’s character. That’s a scene in which the troubadour, the storyteller, comes to the movie. And I wanted for the troubadour to come and tell all the characters about their story so that the characters will have the opportunity to see their story from the outside. Because I think that when we succeed in seeing ourselves from the outside, then we can improve as people. When we were about to shoot the scene we realized that Arthur is not capable of seeing himself from the outside. At that time in the movie, when the troubadour arrives twice, Arthur picks up and goes because he is locked up in prison and in this destiny––he’s on the train of destiny. The movie starts off with him on the train. He gets off, and then there’s train tracks that take him where his roots are. Beniamina, who is his root, and it’s as if he was a tree who already has its roots in the beyond.

When I started the research for this movie I spent a lot of time with water-diviners and in the water-divining world. There’s a saying that goes “like calls like.” Therefore, if a water diviner is searching for water, they use a pendant and they put a drop of water in that pendant, because they say that that drop of water called other water and they become a conduit for this call. I thought that if Arthur is looking for the void for emptiness, it’s because he has a void inside him, because he feels empty. He attracts this void. For this character, I think that what might be most important is the mythology around him. That means what other people think about him as opposed to what he is truly.

You mentioned Arthur going back to his roots. But he’s still basically a foreigner in that land. What are your thoughts on this idea of still being a foreigner in a place you call home? In a place you’re returning to? 

Arthur is a romantic ideal. He is the heir of these beautiful and damned and unbearable romantic writers that always felt that they were lacking something. Our third does not have a land that he belongs to; he belongs to a person. And that’s why I say that he dropped his roots inside a person, rather than inside a land. That is the place where he wants to go back to––that’s the place where he feels he belongs––and this is love. This is love, the possibility that we have to set roots outside of ourselves, beyond ourselves, and he applies that to the letter. I believe that cinema in and of itself can make somebody a foreigner, in the sense that our gaze can be taught and moved away from what we see on a day-to-day basis and can be oriented to something else. As a guide in the movie, we have a foreigner. That was very important to me because only the gaze of a foreigner can give new value to the things that we are accustomed to seeing every day.

In your films there’s an interest towards history and different artistic pursuits within the scope of history. In this film, there’s a sense of art being cyclical––especially as these grave-robbings enter museums. Do you believe in that cyclical nature yourself?  

We always find new forms to express ideas that often are quite simple and elementary. But the problem is that we need to resort to new forms to express fundamental concepts. That is what makes us human, and that’s because mankind is still in the caves. And therefore, until as a species we don’t come out of the cave, art will always be cyclical––because it will have to find new ways to elicit a reaction in mankind. The reaction should be based on not forgetting who we are, not forgetting about ourselves. Looking around and wondering: what are we doing? Who are we? We are waging war against each other––are we crazy? So that, perhaps, is the ultimate goal: arriving at this moment of realization of the absurdity of all the conflicts, all the wars, the idea that there is separation between us. This can be done when art tells us what it is that makes us human. And what it is that makes us similar to each other.

It’s just a never-ending cycle. 

I would be happy to be alive in the moment we go out of the cycle.

La Chimera is now in limited release and continues to expand this weekend.

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