Italian director Alice Rohrwacher (The Wonders, Happy as Lazzaro, Futura) is back with La Chimera, a film billed as a romantic drama but that also touches on slapstick comedy, heist thriller, and character study. Josh O’Connor stars as Arthur, an ex-pat Brit in 1980-whatever Italy. He’s fresh out of jail, a would-be archaeologist heading a gang of “trombalino”, or grave robbers, who find and pilfer Etruscan tombs for black market antiquities. How Arthur fell in with these people isn’t really important, what matters most is the act of finding, whether it’s antiquities or love or truth, and Arthur has a talent for finding things.


Far from the sunny beaches of Call Me By Your Name, another Italian-set romantic drama involving archaeology, Rohrwacher’s story unfolds in a rocky clime, where the light is thin and cold, the vines dormant, the trees denuded (the film is lensed in its plain glory by Hélène Louvart). Even when spring rolls around and green flushes the little town where Arthur resides in a literal shack, La Chimera isn’t interested in romanticizing Italy. The beach is littered with trash, an ugly power plant looms over the shoreline, and the farms outside the village are mean, subsistence-level homesteads. But yet, there are parties and dancing and plenty of grave robbing.

Arthur seems unmoved by the sight of these ancient burials, skeletons set among offerings to the afterlife, to aid the souls of these long-dead once-people in their journey to the next world. He is more consumed by the act of finding, using a dowsing rod and an ineffable sixth sense to locate tomb after tomb. But here in this unpretty, un-prestigious corner of Italy, the tombs he finds are the Etruscan equivalent of pauper’s graves, filled with nothing more than clay pots and the occasional bronze artifact. That is until one night, when his instinct leads him to a truly wonderful find.


Among his finding, Arthur interacts with people in the town. There is his crew of fellow trombalino, a loud and profane bunch, and there is Flora (Isabella Rossellini), the mother of Arthur’s lost love, Beniamena (Yile Yara Vianello). Flora resides in a dilapidated villa, offering singing lessons to Italia (Carol Duarte), in exchange for housework, an arrangement that benefits Flora far more than Italia, especially since Italia seems to be living under the secret stigma of unwed motherhood within their village. There is also Spartaco, Arthur’s mysterious black-market buyer, and occasionally a random bunch of musicians who sing about Arthur’s life.  

Rohrwacher, co-writing with Marco Pettenello and Carmela Covino, is remarkably pragmatic about the grave robbing, from the low-level criminals who do the actual digging and thieving, to the dock workers who take bribes without blinking to smuggle obviously valuable antiquities through the port, to the museum curators who gather on random yachts for auctions and pretend everything is on the up and up (this film lowkey posits that even the “legitimate” stuff in museums is built on black market lies). Arthur is just one piece of the machinery—an idea literally demonstrated using a ship’s engine—that plunders Italy’s cultural heritage to line the pockets of the greedy and adorn museums with prestige.  


But in other ways, La Chimera, as the name suggests, has a certain mysticism to it. Arthur dreams of Beniamena, he wanders woods and beaches in a dowsing fog, everything has a touch of unreality to it, as if he is living a borrowed life. His very presence, “the Englishman” among these Italian thieves, suggests he’s taken a wrong tack somewhere and ended up in a place not meant for him. His finding led him astray, perhaps, or maybe he was in the right place all along, to make a glorious find that changes his perspective on tomb robbing. Italia, too, seems placed to shove him in a new direction, the potential for a life after Beniamena beckoning, if only he can stop looking around every corner for the next thing. O’Connor is a sullen, moody presence as Arthur, only fitfully achieving anything approaching contentedness. Perhaps he is so driven because of the loss of Beniamena, perhaps it’s an unknown goddess calling him to her side, maybe he’s just an asshole. Whatever, Arthur never stops looking and finding, from one grave to the next.

The romanticism of La Chimera is the intermingling of the sacred and profane. It’s the ugliest beach hiding the most beautiful sacred space, a “broomstick” of a woman offering love and acceptance, a man with dirt under his nails and souls in his eyes. Arthur is driven, he is haunted, he is a criminal, he knows when he’s holding something too precious for humans to make mundane. He could have been a great archaeologist, he is a lousy thief, he’s heartbroken, he’s falling in love, but he is always feeling the ground beneath his feet, whispering of ancient things. He can’t live in the now because he is consumed with the past, whether it’s the Etruscans or Beniamena.  


Moments of the surreal in the film only enhance the impression of something greater touching something plain. Whether it’s vaudevillian foot chases, Arthur’s life being rendered as a lamentation, or Arthur’s dreams of Beniamena lingering in another place, his humble life as a grave robber intermingles with something inexpressible. Is it something profound beckoning from a place beyond our own, or is it just human nature to romanticize loss, to make connections where there is only chaos? Arthur looks and he finds, but the finding is never enough. The answer is never enough. 

Perhaps what matters most are the questions, and a willingness to ask them, to see value where others see detritus, whether it’s grave goods or a woman scorned by society. There is beauty around us, no matter how mundane our lives seem, we have only to look to find it. But in looking, we must know when it’s enough. Some things are not meant to be seen, some things are not meant to be held, we must know when to stop before we find our own graves, and us standing in them. Like all love stories, La Chimera is also a cautionary tale.

This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers and actors.  

Attached - Director Alice Rohrwacher a few days ago at Telluride.