‘La Chimera,’ a dreamlike Fellini-esque film


As the title suggests, “La Chimera” — an unrealizable dream or illusion — remains just out of our grasp of complete comprehension. Director Alice Rohrwacher has created a tantalizingly playful, romantic, and fantastical tale that keeps us guessing precisely what will happen next.

Playing at the M.V. Film Center this weekend, the quintessentially Italian film opens enigmatically. A beautiful young woman looks straight into our eyes, placing us behind the camera’s lens. But we hear a man’s voice, in English, softly but inexplicably, saying, “So it’s you. My last woman’s face.” She turns, revealing a seductive, sun-kissed shoulder emblazoned with a small star tattoo. A man’s hand reaches out to lovingly caress her cheek, and in the next split-second, we are on a train, and meet the sleeping Arthur, engagingly played by Josh O’Connor, who it seems was only dreaming of his lost love.

The narrative, which takes place during the 1980s in a nondescript, rundown Italian town, unfolds piece by piece. It is unclear who this forlorn Arthur is, why he’s gone native, where he is coming from, and where he is headed. We discover that rail-thin and dirt-poor, he has just been released from jail, reluctantly returning to the bosom of his marginalized hipster partners in crime, who let him take the rap for past transgressions. We discover that Arthur has a gift. Using twigs for a divining rod, he is able, through seemingly supernatural powers, to locate ancient tombs that they rob of their Etruscan treasures and sell to a shadowy crime boss known to them only as Spartaco. Rohrwacher creates a thought-provoking tension between humor and the sour taste of selling a culture’s patrimony for ill-gotten profit.

Arthur intersperses his tomb-robbing adventures with visits to a dilapidated villa, the home of an eccentric matriarch, Flora, who devotedly dotes on him. Brilliantly played by Isabella Rossellini, Flora is surrounded by a gaggle of grown daughters. It is not wholly clear, but it seems that Arthur’s lost love, Beniamina (beguilingly played by Yile Vianello), was one of them. Like much in the film, why or how she has gone missing remains puzzling.

Another in the eccentric household is Italia, played by Carol Duarte, Flora’s tone-deaf music student, who is more like an inexplicably complacent indentured servant. She, too, is full of mystery, slipping and sliding between being a possible simpleton and an intriguing ingénue.

As the plot strides forward, we gladly go along for the ride. “La Chimera” is infused with magical realism, with its changing camera angles, music that ranges from Italian opera to narrative gypsy songs, dreamlike Fellini-esque imagery, and quirky transitions. Suggestive symbolism, whether images of nature or faded frescos, abounds, encouraging us to construct our own meaning, and thereby keeping us intimately engaged. And like the title, the film also leaves us guessing whether the love of Arthur’s life is simply an illusion.
When asked what drew him to show the “La Chimera,” founder and executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society Richard Paradise says, “It’s a fantastical storyline that is hard to explain. The acting is very good — Josh O’Connor and a subdued Isabella Rossellini in particular. Their world is filled with artifacts and worn history, just like the country they inhabit.” He continues, “And like all great European films, this one’s narrative sneaks up on you. Never fully explained, it allows the viewers to make what they may of it.”

“La Chimera” hits the perfect note, warmly inviting us to get lost in its mysteries.

“La Chimera,” in Italian and English with subtitles, is playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. For schedule and tickets, see mvfilmsociety.com/2024/04/la-chimera.