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La Chimera

“La Chimera” plays like a magical realism version of the classic one-last-heist movie.  

The core of it ultimately may reveal itself to be somewhat familiar: Newly released from prison for his crimes, a thief returns home to pull off the big job that will finally make him and his friends rich. But through the dreamlike lens of Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, “La Chimera” takes an unhurried and unpredictable path to get there. The road to its destination is full of eccentric characters and languid conversations, bits of overlapping dialogue, a song here or a parade there.  

As with 2018’s charming “Happy as Lazzaro,” Rohrwacher tricks you into thinking her film is a pleasingly low-key hang. In truth, she’s saying something more substantive and profound about the tug of history—of centuries of culture as well as a newly lost love. 

Josh O’Connor’s Arthur is the hangdog robber who feels both forces pulling on him equally. He’s an Englishman in rural Italy with a preternatural gift for sniffing out hidden Etruscan artifacts that have been buried with the dead, following his instincts in a trancelike state. The ragtag band of tombaroli who wander behind him with great expectations adds to the film’s vibe of percolating, playful chaos.  

But Arthur is also distracted by visions of Beniamina, the bewitching young woman who’s no longer in his life for reasons that eventually become clear to him. He returns to her palatial, decaying home, where the elegant Isabella Rossellini rules over a pack of chattering, hovering young women who all call her “Mom,” thinking he’ll find some solace there. Amusingly, he does not, but Rossellini provides a non-nonsense kindness, which contrasts with the passive-aggressive way she treats her flighty singing student/housekeeper, Italia (Carol Duarte). 

Working with cinematographer Hélène Louvart, whose films include “Happy as Lazzaro” and Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Rohrwacher bathes the film in a gauzy haze, creating the sensation that this is all an ethereal fantasy. When we first see Arthur, he’s asleep on a train; an attendant wakes him and teasingly asks if he was dreaming, prompting the young women opposite him in the car to giggle. This unreliable vibe permeates “La Chimera,” causing us to question always what is real, even as the stakes ultimately become more immediate and concrete. Sometimes this doesn’t work, as in Rohrwacher’s use of slapsticky, sped-up sequences, an homage to the style of silent films which feels too quirky and out of place. Similarly, the aspect ratio often changes, creating an unnecessary distraction. But for the most part, she casts a spell. 

Much of that comes from O’Connor’s performance, which is full of intriguing contradictions. He’s not a good guy or even a particularly interesting one. Forlorn, shaggy and increasingly emaciated, in his rumpled, cream-colored suit with a cigarette frequently dangling from his lips, he roams the countryside in a fog. But you want to see him succeed in his plundering pursuits and lift himself and his pals out of poverty, because those moments buoy his existence—and the film—with a giddy sense of hope. So compelling in “God’s Own Country,” and recently playing Prince Charles on “The Crown,” O’Connor offers an air of mystery churning beneath his boyish facade. (He also co-stars in Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming, much-anticipated “Challengers.”) 

After deftly navigating a variety of tones, Rorhwacher places O’Connor’s Arthur at the center of a moment that’s truly surprising, and surprisingly poignant. In the process, with this film that feels suspended in time, she proves once again that she’s one of the most singular and artful filmmakers working today. 

Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for RogerEbert.com since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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La Chimera movie poster

La Chimera (2024)

133 minutes

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