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“We Go from 16mm to Super 16 to 35mm”: Alice Rohrwacher on La Chimera

A group of men huddle around a dirt digging site on a sunny afternoon by a beach.Melchiorre Pala, Josh O'Connor and Vincenzo Nemolato in La Chimera, courtesy of NEON

in Directors, Interviews, Screenwriters
on Mar 27, 2024

Italian filmmaker Alice Rorhwacher’s puckish and scintillatingly tactile fourth feature is her most ambitious to date. Once again dramatizing the conflicting ideals of modernity and tradition, past and present, Rohrwacher continues to pay debt to forebears of Italian cinema like Ermanno Olmi while also infusing her film with a symbolic surrealism and neo-realist class consciousness reminiscent of the respective likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini Roberto Rossellini. La Chimera follows English archaeologist Arthur (Josh O’Connor), who possesses a mystical ability to divine the location of subterranean treasures. Freshly released from prison, he reunites with a band of tombaroli (essentially grave robbers) to plunder the spoils of ancient Etruscan burial sites. As inspiration, Rohrwacher draws as much from historical and anthropological texts about these art looters as she does from myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and a collection, Orphic Songs (1914), by outsider poet Dino Campana. While the merry thieves operate out of a sense of capitalist defiance and feel entitled to the historical spoils, Arthur’s pursuit extends beyond the material towards the existential and personal, as he seeks his lost love Beniamina. She represents the chimera of the title, an allusion to illusions and attempts to recapture what is no longer present. And yet, with La Chimera Rohrwacher skillfully achieves a sense of the intangible through exquisite imagery shot by long-time collaborator Hélène Louvart, who artfully alternates between 35mm, 16mm and Super 16 formats with strategic and graceful precision.

La Chimera opens in theaters on March 29, 2024 from NEON. Ahead of its release I spoke with the filmmaker about her fascination with the Etuscans, the past and color theory. 

Filmmaker: The Etruscans are obviously a big part of Italian history. I was re-watching The Wonders, and there’s a part where the father jokes that everyone’s so obsessed. Etruscans this, Etruscans that—you don’t ever hear about people pondering about Milanese. What is the appeal of this ancient civilization for you? 

Rohrwacher: The Etruscans are a bit like the native inhabitants of my region of Italy, a population that was exterminated by the settling Romans. Unfortunately, this is a common historical thread for many places in the world: populations and people were exterminated by others for cultural reasons or for reasons of wealth and appropriation. The Etruscans always fascinated me because on the one hand, instead of building for the living the way the Romans did, the Etruscans would build to hide. The Romans left us the Coliseum and great theaters, but the Etruscans’ inheritance was hidden in the hypogeas, all these hidden sanctuaries underground. A people that creates to hide their creation is very strange, especially when you compare it to what happens today when we’re not even capable of making a cake without showing the entire world.

The other motivation is that when you think of the images this population left us, it looks like a society where men and women were together as equals. We can’t know for sure, but it looks like there was a condition of equality between the genders, who both seemed to be very free. The Etruscans convey to us an image of great happiness. I don’t know if this is a myth or not, but what is clear is that after them, there were 2,500 years that were quite dark in Italy. Knowing that I live in a land where the native population that was here before had reached a pinnacle of equality and held some values I deem beautiful was very appealing to me. 

I also just want to add that while I was depicting this in The Wonders, I was focused on the touristic exploitation of the past. In La Chimera, I wanted to focus on something that comes before touristic exploitation, and that is the time when sacred items stop being considered sacred and become objects of commerce that can be sold and traded.

Filmmaker: When you talk about gender equality, I’m reminded of that fourth-wall break that happens in the film where one of the characters makes note of the Etruscans being a matriarchal society. This type of alternate society that runs counter to what actually exists is something that comes up throughout your work. 

Rohrwacher: Yes, it is a theme that’s very important to us. As you see in La Chimera, male chauvinism and patriarchy is a negative component of a society, not just for women, but also for men. When we see the tombaroli, they are locked in this prison of needing to show off to other men and almost become martyrs. They cannot have honest relationships with each other and put up a face that’s not authentic. This makes it obvious that such a system doesn’t work on either side. I was not only interested in showing the limitations of patriarchal society for men. I also wanted for us to remember that it is not a natural condition of human beings, but a choice imposed upon us at some point in the past. It’s not a condition of nature—it’s a condition of culture, and culture can be transformed.

Filmmaker: Arturo, Josh O’Connor’s character is very quiet, almost silent, which is in some ways the opposite of your typical portrayal of masculinity. Silence also characterizes the male characters of Lazzaro and Martin in your previous movies.

Rohrwacher: They are certainly characters of few words. Martin is a character of projection—that is, he is the man on whom we project desires, but in the end he is a stranger. Lazzaro is silent because he is always present and therefore has nothing else to add, while Arthur is always absent. He’s somewhere else, so he’s silent, because maybe he doesn’t even know where he is. 

Filmmaker: I read that when you found Josh, you changed the character for him. I was wondering what he was originally like?

Rohrwacher: I imagined the character to be much older before meeting Josh. But it hasn’t changed that radically because even though Josh is young, he has a very old soul. The character was always a foreigner stuck in this lost love for a woman and archeology. To some extent, he found himself involved in the dynamic of this gang of grave robbers in spite of himself, because it’s the only thing that allows him not to think. It’s the only thing that allows him to be there, yet not be there at the same time. At this point I can’t imagine the character without Josh. The feeling and idea that I wanted for him to convey was exactly this—that of a romantic hero lost within the society of the ’80s, so dominated by materialism, male chauvinism and machismo, and therefore his lofty values come off as somewhat ridiculous. 

Filmmaker: I’m curious how you came up with his costume, the cream linen suit that becomes progressively dirtied throughout the course of the film as his journey progresses and he gets more in over his head.

Rohrwacher: To some extent it’s a costume that makes him look like a statue because it’s actually the color of marble. Each character has a color that protects them, and Arthur’s color is white. But it’s a white that takes on more layers. He is like a groom, a newlywed or Orpheus. It’s like he’s wearing this wedding suit and as time goes by, it gets dirtier and dirtier, and it accompanies him in all this transformation. There was a very specific manner of working on the costumes in general, focusing on the symbolic value of the colors. We drew a bit from the tradition of popular frescoes in which every color has a meaning.

Filmmaker: Can you give me an example? 

Rohrwacher: The simplest one is that Flora [Beniamina’s mother, played by Isabella Rossellini] is black, because she’s a grieving woman. Meanwhile, Beniamina is between these two extremes of black and white. She’s all the colors, a rainbow. Then we have Italia [Flora’s student/house-keeper, and Arthur’s potential love interest], who is red, and Beniamina’s sisters, who are faded pastels. It’s not a coincidence that white is what you get from layering all the colors together on top of each other, so even though Arthur and Beniamina are different colors it’s as if it was the same thing, the same color.

Filmmaker: Orpheus is one of the inspirations of the film, as are the Orphic Songs by the poet Dino Campana. He was a sort of outsider in his own way, and in his book the speaker is searching for something elusive as well. I was wondering what aspect of his work appealed to you. 

Rohrwacher: The Canti Orfici are in some way the poems of Arthur. As I said earlier, Arthur is different from everyone around him. He belongs to another time, another era, so he becomes ridiculous even, a bit like the albatross in the Baudelaire poem. When he is on the ground he’s ridiculous, but when he flies he becomes beautiful. Josh and I read over and over one of Dino Campana’s poems called “Chimera,” which depicts very well how Arthur moves about in moonlight, searching for this shape for this woman who may possibly be just a chimera. 

Filmmaker: There’s also an incantatory quality to those poems that’s not unlike the tone and textures of your film. At what point do you loop Hélène Louvart in? Are there images present in your mind while you’re writing the script? 

Rohrwacher: The collaboration with Hélène is very important for me. We are very close. We are two bodies, one soul, and in this, there is something that allows us to have a very attentive and involved vision. This story doesn’t leave room for psychological research, because the characters are almost like the characters of fairy tales. We could even say they are two-, not three-dimensional. So, what can give them that third dimensionality? How do we tell the deep movements of their souls? Through the movement of the images. So, every time we move the camera, every time we choose a frame or shot, we know that we are telling a story in a very strict way, in a way that adheres closely to their inner life and inner movements. It’s not just accompanying a story with images, but creating a story of images. 

We worked with three different types of film to add to the story’s archaeological component, because when you think about cinema and you talk about film history, you focus on auteurs. But there’s also the medium, which has evolved over time, so we go from 16mm to Super 16 to 35mm. They’re all archaeological incarnations of film’s evolution, and we kept and combined them all in a single movie. 

Filmmaker: Your films often look to the past, but not necessarily in a nostalgic way. How would you describe your connection to the past?

Rohrwacher: It’s hard to answer because I don’t have a specific theory on this. I don’t believe I’m a nostalgic person, but I am an attentive person—and when you pay attention to things, that’s about a disposition of the soul. Attention is a disposition of the soul towards the past and also the future. I believe that the most important thing that one can learn from the past is considering it not just as a combination of things that we still need to do, but also about the things that we leave behind us when we’re no longer there. When you think about the future, it’s good to have a certain softness towards the archeologists of the future, who hopefully will not just find toxic waste, plastic, weapons and bombs, but something beautiful that we’ve built and purposely left behind. So, in terms of thinking about the past, that’s what I think about. I think about something that can remind me that I will be the past myself at some point. And this isn’t a bad thing. It’s something that gives me a certain degree of happiness. 

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