La Chimera @ Nashville Film
Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera is predominantly in Italian, with about 5 to 10% of the dialogue in English; within the film, we learn a new and apparently unofficial Italian word (I say “unofficial” because Google Translate did not recognize it). The word is tombaroli. You might notice the root word tomb therein; it apparently means “grave robbers,” which is what most of the characters in this film are. Grave-robbing is commonplace and highly problematic in Italy, since Italy’s history extends farther back than that of the United States (from a certain point of view.)
The principal tombaroli in this film is an English ex-pat named Arthur (Josh O’Connor). We meet him as he has just been released from prison for grave-robbing. On a train back his village he charms the young ladies in his compartment by saying that they look like ancient Eutruscan women, then turns them off by beating up a salesman on the train who suggests that he smells bad and needs to buy new socks.
It’s a vivid intro to Arthur made all the more vivid by how quickly we perceive that Arthur doesn’t care about any of it any more than he cares about reuniting with his gang when he arrives in the village or that his “home” is a shack made of corrugated metal outside the city walls.
What matters to Arthur: getting back into grave-robbing and meeting with Flora (Isabella Rossellini). She resides in a crumbling villa within the city and is seen to/made over/unsuccessfully manipulated by an army of daughters, who also love Arthur–but he doesn’t love them. Flora understands he loves another of her daughters, Benjamina, whom he can no longer find, but whom he dreams about throughout the film.
Benjamina is one of two ultimate goals for Arthur. We learn about the other when he returns to his shack and upends a small tree planted outside. It’s a false tree and apparently the pot in which it “grew” was filled with of Eutruscan antiques before he went to prison. It’s empty now, which leads Arthur to reunite with his gang, the only other folks to know about the tree. They explain to Arthur that they had to take the items and sell them to stay afloat; then they look into the camera (inexplicably the only time the fourth wall is broken in this film) and explain to us that while they were all looking for antiquities simply to sell for huge bundles of lira, Arthur was seeking one particular antiquity. We never learn what specifically it was, but we learn what Arthur reckoned it to be: a portal to the afterlife. (I’d assume that anything along those lines would have been found decades earlier by another fellow with a knack for finding antiquities,)
Arthur does seem to have a special relationship to the buried treasures of ancient Italy, as evinced by how he finds them. He uses a dowsing rod, as in the way people sometimes seek water: he will wander about on a piece of ground until he feels something. When he feels something, the rod doesn’t point downward, he does–he faints outright! It’s a process we observe as Arthur, willingly or not, falls back into his old practice of grave-robbing with the gang.
Soon Arthur’s false tree is refilled, but not all the spoils can go to Arthur and the gang. They are obliged to sell a considerable portion of their ill-gotten grave goods to Spartaco, a powerful, never-seen figure to whom the gang owes a huge debt as he got Arthur out of prison. The gang keeps their share of what Spartaco pays, Arthur turns it down. For him it’s all about Benjamina and the portal–even as it becomes evident that he does not have to, strictly speaking, dwell on Benjamina, as Flora’s caregiver Italia (Carol Duarte) is growing increasingly fond of him.
There’s a charming scene when Flora, Arthur, and Italia visit the town’s original (now abandoned) train station, and Italia takes delight in the idea that the station belongs to everyone and no one–a concept which flummoxes our grave-robbing hero, who gives Italia a gift as they tour the station–a child’s toy from one of the Eutruscan graves.
There is one slight hitch to their relationship: Italia does not know that Arthur is in fact a grave-robber. She finds out in an unusually long set piece which takes place at a festival on the beach, where she (to Arthur’s chagrin) dances with other men. Because Arthur barely cares about attending the party anyway, he busts out the dowsing rod, and promptly faints. The gang tell Italia that he is “in his Chimeras”–interestingly the only time the film’s title is spoken–and then explain what he is actually doing, which leads to nothing good for Arthur. Italia, highly spiritual, is frightened at the thought of being near graves, offended at the thought of Arthur robbing them (she gives the toy back) and pointedly asks the gang if Benjamina knows what he does.
As the scene continues, Arthur’s unusual talent has, it turns out, served him to a degree it never has before. What he has found is not merely a grave, but, as evinced by the fully intact statue within it, a temple to a Eutruscan goddess.
To say further would be to spoil too much, but it’s clear that Arthur’s destiny is similar to that of prior treasure-seekers on film, whether they sought jeweled falcons, Arks, or kingly spoils. Or is it? Does he find the portal, does he find Benjamina, or does he remain lost in his chimeras? Seek out the film and see for yourself.