Pull the Red Thread: On Alice Rohrwacher’s “La chimera”

By Greta RainbowMay 16, 2024

Pull the Red Thread: On Alice Rohrwacher’s “La chimera”
IT’S A CLASSIC cop-out twist ending: it was all just a dream. What about a film that begins with one? A girl in an embroidered dress sliding off her shoulders, red thread unraveling at her bare feet. A happy day, but her brows are sad, upturned. The sun sparks between the shadows of tall grasses and wisps of hair, symptomatic of a luscious Super 16.

La chimera, Alice Rohrwacher’s latest feature, is preoccupied with beautiful things we can no longer see.

Blink. The film stock changes (though it’s still a gorgeous 35 mm). On a train, the conductor takes tickets, our dreamer forced to open his eyes. He shares a car with three young women, none of them Beniamina, the strawberry blonde from his video-diary vision. Lost or dead, she’s definitely gone.

“Where are you from?” they ask him, giggling. “Somewhere far away?”

“Sort of,” he replies moodily. Though he speaks decent Italian, Arthur is the perfect Englishman—played by actor Josh O’Connor, recognizable as a young Charles in The Crown (2016–23)—conspicuously lacking possessions and wearing a cream linen suit that he keeps on for most of the movie. He perks up when one of the girls turns in profile: her aquiline nose might as well be cut from a marble bust; hers is a face that recalls ancient royalty. He tells her so, not as a come-on but as an involuntary reaction, a surrender, to what he sees in front of him.

Arthur continues to be distracted by images. A defected archaeologist, he makes it back from a prison stint to the obscure Tuscan town of Riparbella. There, his friends, a merry band of grave robbers (or “tombaroli”), convince him to pick back up the divining rod he uses to locate Etruscan tombs full of objects that they sell on the black market. Descending into the earth, his mates stir up the dust between skeleton ribs to grab every last cauldron, cup, and painted vase of value. Arthur inspects the tiniest of trinkets, a rattle that probably belongs to a buried baby.

Morbidity is ordinary here. A Kraftwerk song blares over a tombaroli montage, a music video of weird-hot people in corduroy in autumn, moving jerkily like a Charlie Chaplin–style sped-up frame rate. Isabella Rossellini plays Flora, the aging mother of Beniamina who lives in a crumbling villa. Still recognizable in her face is a whole history of Italian cinema. Excavating my experience of the film, I search for photos of Rossellini “young” and “now.” One day she will appear in a film for the last time, but we can watch her at any age at any time.

Outside of the festivals, the only American theater La chimera played in last year was the Linden Boulevard Multiplex in East New York. The distributors faced a conundrum, as they didn’t think people would buy tickets without an Oscar nomination, but they needed a weeklong theatrical run in order to be Academy eligible. In the end, Italy submitted Io capitano for Best International Feature Film; in that film, two Senegalese teens migrate from Africa to Sicily in a sweeping narrative that combines three different can’t-believe-it’s-real stories.

As of March 29 of this year, La chimera is in wide release. A supermarket chain bought the Linden Boulevard Multiplex last summer and then, weeks after La chimera screened, closed it, the only movie house for miles, down forever.

Several 2023 movies that did make it to this year’s Oscars aim to correct or control our shared, presentist impression of the past. Killers of the Flower Moon and The Zone of Interest recount historic horrors from the perspective of the perpetrators. Oppenheimer and Barbie try to critique the United States through two of its most impactful exports. Meanwhile, Io capitano director Matteo Garrone hoped to show “a subjective experience from the point of view of the migrant. […] It’s the reverse shot of what we are used to seeing and the opposite of my first movie, in which I used migrants to say something about Italy.”

Many of today’s talked-about films are afflicted not just with good intentions but also with anxiety around those purposes. The need to say something is so intense, the desire to communicate a mode of thinking so suffocating, that they fail to direct our feelings. It’s a cinema bracing for judgment, motivated by opinions, not images, we presumably already agree with.

None of this is good news for the romantics and aesthetic-pleasure-seekers. In foregrounding a message that stands outside of the fiction, the story, as told through images, can be lost. The saddest thing is, a well-told story can absolutely prove politically persuasive, as long as the storyteller has faith in the telling.

Amid this state of narrative fatigue, as if a child demanding a bedtime story, I find comfort in the fable. This is not to say that folktales and legends do not contain morals, as that is often their defining feature. But their lessons are timeless, relating to the most basic facts about how we live. They feel familiar because they are what the past told us we are, inherently.

Critics like to call Rohrwacher’s films fables, and in La chimera, the filmmaker borrows from the ancient tale of Orpheus and Eurydice: a thwarted union, a lost girl, a hero entering the underworld to find her, her mother egging him on. Why does Orpheus turn around at the end, the one thing Hades told him not to do? Because Eurydice is beautiful; because he is excited and in love. Sometimes it is that simple.

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For decades, Western thinkers on the left have mostly agreed that beauty is a myth; it simply does not exist. It is a construct, a story that we are told and that we tell to further subjugation. In 1991, Naomi Wolf declared that beauty is “a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.” In 1999, psychologist Nancy Etcoff wrote a cutting response: “Beauty has consequences that we cannot erase by denial. […] Academics may ban it from intelligent discourse and snobs may sniff that beauty is trivial and shallow but in the real world the beauty myth quickly collides with reality.”

La chimera wrestles with both interpretations of the beauty myth. There is the dangerous wielding of it for power and profit embodied by Spartaco (Alba Rohrwacher, sister of Alice), girlboss art dealer in a jewel-toned power suit pawning off the tombaroli’s finds to museum curators. The (thoroughly modern) image of the goods being loaded out via crane and shipping container reminds us that without the deeds of Spartaco types, we would have no Greek and Roman wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Beauty—as it exists as a copy of a copy on Spartaco’s slide projector—is not exempt from exploitation.

Arthur is the film’s flawed moral compass. His uncontrollable pull toward the tombs is wrapped up in a pure devotion not just for the objects but also for Beniamina, whom he somehow thinks he’ll find down there. (We don’t know what happened to her or whether Arthur is at all to blame.) Part of Arthur’s tragedy is his blindness to the present. He could just surrender to the love of his asshole friends and Italia (Carol Duarte), a bumbling yet resourceful girl who, contrary to her name’s implication, actually hails from Brazil. She works for Flora and flirts with Arthur, though he’s too “lost in his chimeras” for it to work. In one of the more surreal scenes, Italia turns an abandoned train station into a communal haven for mothers and kids. “Does it belong to everyone or no one?” she asks about the building. No one answers her, so she decides for herself.

As for the tombaroli’s moral position, they charm the town as they ride through its narrow streets on a tractor, costumed and raving. Rohrwacher drops a hint when the gang is drinking to a successful dig and a troubadour starts to narrate, Greek chorus–style, the film’s events thus far. “What’s the point of judging them?” he warbles in Italian. “The tombaroli are just a drop in the ocean.”

People are taking all the time anyway. Flora’s daughters descend on her house and leave with lampshades under their arms. Flora herself represents beauty neglected. We must take care of old things before they become unbeautiful, which is not the same thing as ugly.

When asked about her artistic inspirations, Rohrwacher said that she enjoys viewing contemporary art in museums, where it is difficult to tell what is beautiful and what is not:

When I did La Chimera, it was very clear that the treasures hidden under the earth were beautiful things. It’s very different from the time we are living in now. There is no longer a common sense of beauty. […] The art of the past was a magnet for the eye. For me contemporary art is the opposite; it is one eye that looks at the world.


Rohrwacher’s eye is not trained on nostalgia. For all this talk of the aesthetic, the Southern Tuscany she films does not include the rolling vineyards on postcards or silhouetted cathedrals in Instagram posts. She turns her camera toward the dirt, the jagged coastline, the crumbling man-made hills when the earth is near frozen. La chimera has no wistful yearning for the past. Though there might be gestures to the real 1980s Italy, with its bloated economy providing a false sense of stability and a lean-in to nationalism that had felt taboo since Mussolini.

But this is no nostalgic recreation or retelling, no self-satisfied correction. Rohrwacher devises a whole new world with its own set of rules, planting it in soil made nutrient-rich by the decomposition of dead things. The usable, spiritual past is subjective, as Van Wyck Brooks explains, because “it yields only what we are able to look for in it.”

During a windfall dig that produces the best artifacts yet, we see the inside of the tomb before the robbers do: deep blue and quiet except for the clink clink clink rattling the animal carvings that teeter on the steps of an untouched shrine. The walls are painted, and we watch them calcify, losing their color as the tomb is opened and they are exposed to air for the first time. It’s horrifying to watch the head of a stone goddess lopped off in one quick stroke.

The late critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote that “[b]eauty is a willing loss of mental control, surrendered to [an] organic process that is momentarily under the direction of an exterior object. The object is not thought and felt about, exactly. It seems to use my capacities to think and feel itself.” If the desire to experience this is wrongthink, is fascist, is reserved for the elite, it’s only because that intense power has been weaponized by bad actors.

To riff on Michelangelo, a block of marble contains the possibility of man’s every idea, which means it also contains all evil. Still, new and unencumbered beauty is created every day. Life is often simply beautiful. Rohrwacher’s film is an example of both. Schjeldahl again: “There is something crazy about a culture in which the value of beauty becomes controversial. It is crazy not to celebrate whatever reconciles us to life.”

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Growing up, I owned the book Magical Tales from Many Lands (1993). My favorite story was “The Lemon Princess,” which the British author cites as Arabic in its origins, though variants appear in many oral traditions. It goes like this: Once upon a time, a prince needed to find a woman beautiful enough to marry. An old lady tells him about a tree where he may find a woman whose face is untouched by the sun, and she appears from a cut ripe lemon, more gorgeous than any mortal.

While the prince is fetching her clothes, an ugly servant comes by, gazes into the river, and mistakes the princess’s reflection for her own. The servant tricks the princess, removes her talisman, and sends her fluttering off as she’s transformed into a dove. When the prince returns, the servant girl is waiting. She says the sun scorched her skin, and that’s why it’s coarse; a crow nested in her hair, and that’s why it’s tangled; tears poured from her eyes, and that’s why they are small and squinted. But with some shape-shifting, the original lemon princess manages to return to human form and into the arms of her prince. Palace guards run the ugly servant out, and people say she’s still running to this day.

I felt giddy with vindication every time the story ended with the marriage of the right, perfect couple. I was furious with the servant for duping the prince and for not looking the part of the pretty princess my child’s mind conjured. I think I even felt fearful of the idea of faces changing in an instant, of the possibility for beauty to be unfixed and changeable. The story equates beauty with goodness and purity; I was learning to do the same.

But beauty is treated differently now that idealizing it is associated with regressive politics. Walter Benjamin explained that an artistic object can enforce the presence of an authority even when that authority is absent. The opposite, art stripped of ritual purpose, must be wiped of historical markers, of anything attached to potentially ugly meanings. It is brave of Rohrwacher to make a film about a guy fascinated by ancient art at a time when right-wing troll accounts on Twitter use Greco-Roman statues as their avatars to gesture toward traditional values and fallen civilization.

The Etruscans came before the Roman Empire. To the naked eye, their iconography leans Greek. They were a distinct civilization that believed in immanent polytheism, the presence of the gods contained in every stroke of nature. They believed in the epic power of beauty as it exists in noses and lemon trees and other totally specific things that reaffirm one’s relation to their society. They made monuments to embody the beliefs that they thought would outlast them: It’s not real, but we believe in it.

Even as it is undermined, our appreciation of beauty makes us human. It links us to the past, the good and the bad of it. Our ability to appreciate beauty is the red thread running through all of history. When a frayed end is dangled before us, we should grab on with conviction and, very gently, tug.

LARB Contributor

Greta Rainbow is a writer and researcher in New York. Her essays, criticism, and reporting on arts and culture have appeared in The Guardian, New York Magazine, New York Review of Architecture, and SSENSE, among others.

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