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Review | Italian “The Chimera” reveals a fable of lost love and grave robbing

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(3.5 stars)

Antiquity and modern times rub shoulders in the films of Italian Alice Rohrwacher, imbuing herself with the timelessness of a popular tale told around a campfire. “The Chimera,” the writer-director’s latest film, concerns a band of working-class tombaroli — grave robbers — who dig up ancient Etruscan artifacts and sell them on the black market, but the film is also a meditation on the tension between romanticizing the past and profiting from it. Wise, funny and mysterious, he is a unique charmer.

The central character is a comic book wet blanket: Arthur (Josh O’Connor), a morose British archaeologist turned Italian native, assisting the tombaroli as a sort of “grave whisperer” who can sniff out an underground crypt using only a divining rod. and his own sixth sense. The pottery and funerary effigies he and his team unearthed are fenced in by an unseen local chieftain and are likely to be found in museums and private collections; For the tombaroli, dodging the police while looting their country’s cultural heritage is just a way to add excitement and extra money to a difficult life. While Arthur reveres ancient history, his criminal accomplices see it simply as a well-stocked larder.

The tombaroli are mostly men, laid-back slackers with names like Pirro (Vincenzo Nemolato) and Melchiorre (Melchiorre Pala) and played, flatteringly, by non-professionals. Arthur, on the other hand, melodramatically mourns a lost love (Yile Yara Vianello), one of the many daughters of Flora (Isabella Rossellini), an eccentric aristocrat who lives in a ruined villa and dotes on Arthur as her favorite pet . Rossellini only appears in a handful of scenes, but she prepares a six-course meal in each one.

O’Connor is best known for playing young Prince Charles on two seasons of “The Crown,” and he may be better known in a few weeks as one third of the romantic triangle in the tennis drama “Challengers”; he is a visceral and present artist who here hides his charisma under a bushel of grumpy romantic disenchantment. Arthur is a snob and a malcontent who knows he’s wasting his gifts, and the deadpan comedy of “La Chimera” is seeing him reluctantly brought back to life by Italia, who is either Flora’s hapless housekeeper or her equally deaf music student. Maybe both.

Italia – her name is so symbolic that even the other characters joke about it – is played by Brazilian actress Carol Duarte with an air of absurdity and pragmatism, if there is such a thing. She’s the only person here who looks at the grave robbing with any sort of moral disapproval, and she slides from the film’s margins to center stage with delightful confidence.

Rohrwacher directed the critically acclaimed “Happy as Lazzaro” (2018), a magical realist parable about medieval farm workers of the 20th century, and its 2022. The Oscar-nominated short film “The Pupil” is a brilliantly funny story of rebellion in an all-girls convent school that continues to stream on Disney Plus. She has the shaggy imagination of her compatriot Federico Fellini and the keen eye for societal and personal relationships of Roberto Rossellini, but her gift for stories bordering on realism and fable is unique. A tomb-digging montage in the middle of the film, featuring two local musicians mythologizing the story even as it happens, is Rohrwacher at his best, and his use of different film sequences and characters addressing the public evokes the relaxed inventiveness of popular art.

The director also has a sense of territory – of Italy as a country, as history, as buried treasure, as Earth – that makes this film as much an experience as it is a story. The land is what attracts Arthur and the tombaroli in “The Chimera,” the title of the film alluding to all the dreams of money and meaning that draw them in. The danger is to land in prison or, even worse, to be buried alive under the weight of history, archaeological or romantic.

Rohrwacher offers an escape route for his sad-sack hero, but it’s unclear whether this leads to reality or simply more dreams. To paraphrase Faulkner, the past isn’t even past in this film – it’s happening vividly right before our feet.

Not rated (as PG). At the AMC Hoffman Center 22 and the Avalon Theater. Crimes against national heritage, poor maintenance. 132 minutes.

Ty Burr is the author of Ty Burr’s Watch List movie recommendation newsletter on tyburrswatchlist.com.

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