La Chimera, the latest gem by Italian auteur Alice Rohrwacher, is a film rooted in two worlds. There is the world above the ground: the 1980s Italian countryside, where the film’s central characters — a raucous band of misfit grave robbers — search for lost tombs scattered throughout the rural terrain. Then there is the world beneath the Earth: the one our gang digs through, dirtying their fingernails and conscience, as they take from the dead. It is in the underground, which belongs to the restless souls of the Etruscan tombs, that Rohrwacher’s imagination flourishes. As a filmmaker, Rohrwacher has always shown an aptitude for folklore and the magical, and in La Chimera, Rohrwacher has cast her most enchanting spell.

Rohrwacher finds a kindred spirit in the demure and sensitive Arthur (Josh O’Connor). As the protagonist and leader of the band of tombaroli (Italian for grave robbers), Arthur has one foot in reality, and one foot buried in his past. Tormented by the disappearance of his love, Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello), Arthur sulks through the pastoral landscape, desperate to find Beniamina alive, in the underground amidst the Etruscan artifacts and mysteries of the tombs. 

Where Arthur uses a dowsing rod to connect with the supernatural, Rohrwacher pulls from her bag of cinematic tricks a delightful use of fast-motion chase scenes, musical interludes, and a synthesis of 16 mm film and 35 mm film footage. Many of Rohrwacher and cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s most creative shots convey Arthur’s plight as a man who belongs to two worlds. 

As Arthur approaches a trove of buried goods, the camera rotates 180 degrees to frame him upside down, as if threatening to drop him into the Earth. Such moments show playful synchronicity between the actor and the director. I hope that the director has found a muse in O’Connor, who is currently rising to stardom.

Rohrwacher reminds us that there is no honour among thieves, a maxim particularly true in the cutthroat world of capitalism.

In the film’s third act, in a nod to another Italian filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, Rohrwacher slowly paints a new portrait of the town; one invaded by hulking structures such as oil rigs and refineries. The imagery of these structures is accompanied by the eerie soundscape emanating from the machines. These tools of industry embody the larger capitalist machine that has been running in the background of the tombaroli’s operation, as some of the developments and vessels— such as a container yard and a barge — are instruments of big business traffickers that aim to steal the riches right out from under the tombaroli. 

The inversion is an interesting twist that echoes the thoughtful commentary of the director’s past films such as Happy as Lazzaro (2018). Rohrwacher reminds us that there is no honour among thieves, a maxim particularly true in the cutthroat world of capitalism. The robbers can quickly become the robbed.

My favourite scene from the film begins with the concerns of a new friend of the tombaroli, Italia (Carol Duarte). “Those things aren’t made for human eyes,” Italia says to the tombaroli so that they retreat from a newly discovered tomb, lest they disturb the eternal rest of the dead. Her warning goes unheeded. Arthur and the tombaroli break into the tomb where the camera turns to the tomb’s walls, revealing them as beautifully painted frescoes. 

In a series of shots, the outside air fades the façade of the frescoes. The scene mimics a sequence from Federico Fellini’s Roma (1972), where construction workers stumble upon ancient frescoes in Rome’s underground. By paying tribute, La Chimera blows dust off Fellini’s decades-old scene. It is a remarkable moment because it not only shows Rohrwacher’s skillful ability to invoke Italian cinematic history but also suggests the pitfalls of homage. Follow too closely in your favourite artists’ footsteps and you may intrude where you don’t belong. It is a balance Rohrwacher handles deftly.

Due to its period setting and loving odes to past Italian auteurs, like the frescoes in Roma and the Etruscan ornaments, La Chimera feels like a relic. Coming so many years after its influences, the film seems to point to itself as a work of art, as it questions its place in a world where capitalism now trumps all, including the distribution of art and historical relics. 

Rohrwacher, one of cinema’s best up-and-coming directors, is certainly a breath of fresh air, but the director is working in an era where unfortunately this mode of filmmaking is such a rarity in the current marketplace. The film offers no easy answers to its questions, but as one of the most spellbinding films to come from contemporary Italian cinema, I hope this is one treasure seen by many.