Saturday 18 May 2024

Jugheads: "La Chimera"

Perhaps it should come with a trigger warning for magical realism, that most variably realised and take-or-leave of forms. Alice Rohrwacher's often magical 2018 film Happy as Lazzaro concluded with a character casually strolling out of the past and into the present day, some indication that the boundaries in Rohrwacher country are nothing if not porous. The writer-director's follow-up La Chimera heads even more forcefully in that same direction. We're in something like the 1970s now, and back in the Italian countryside, where superstitions, myths and legends have taken deep root in the soil, alongside the remnants of earlier civilisations. Going in search of the latter: Englishman Arthur (Josh O'Connor), a funny, shambling sort of mastermind whom we find returning to these fields after serving jail time for smuggling antiquities onto the black market. He returns unchanged in everything from his moral outlook to his grimy white linen suit - apparel that, like much else hereabouts, has clearly seen better days. Reuniting his crew of oddballs, he begins plotting his next heist - not on a museum or bank vault, but the bounteous earth itself, a process that involves divining with sticks while his crew congregate con molto anticipazione in his footsteps. To the last man, they're a confounding bunch: a Fellini wet dream, and doubtless a nightmare for others. For not unlike her recidivist diviner hero, Rohrwacher is herself testing the ground beneath her feet, seeing how far she can push what she does. That La Chimera debuted on the UK Top Ten - and was still playing to a packed house as I caught up with it on its second weekend - would indicate the filmmaker has been successful in at least some part of her enquiries; yet it also struck this viewer as highlighting the risks with this particular aesthetic, chiefly how porous the boundary is between genuine screen magic, a rapt ensorcelment, and at least semi-resistible whimsy.

Much of La Chimera represents the wesandersonification of Rohrwacher, the point at which previously organic, fabular storytelling takes a turn for the self-consciously quirky and infantile. (Possibly with an eye to capturing the infantilised hearts and minds of the mass audience.) Happy as Lazzaro's characters appeared carved from the landscapes they inhabited or passed through, as if out of stone; this shower, by contrast, are largely defined by their wardrobe choices. Arthur's suit; some retro leisurewear; a Steve Zissou-like woolly hat; a rakish moustache. They wouldn't necessarily have had to be authentic depictions of the Italian proletariat during the Years of Lead, but these figures forever feel more doodled than written or embodied, cut out of cardboard with safety scissors, filled in only with felt tips, added to the frame as a creative afterthought. It's possible O'Connor was cast specifically for his jug-like ears: they rhyme, not unamusingly, with some of the trophies he seeks, and render Arthur immediately recognisable in silhouette, like Bart Simpson. (Where Anderson turns to Tilda Swinton and her swelling prop box, Rohrwacher casts her own sister Alba as a mercenary antiquities dealer in a shameless canary-yellow jumpsuit.) The absence of depth and shade means that no matter how hard, far or wide the gang digs, the film remains stranded at surface level; these characters can't affect us any more than, say, the Hair Bear Bunch or the Ant Hill Mob. Arthur demonstrates some maturing of taste - a late-in-the-day appreciation for the beauty of statues, as distinct from their market value - but mostly spends the movie getting grubbier and grubbier. (O'Connor looks like a child who's raided his dad's closet for playtime; you spend much of the film wanting to take a spit-dampened tissue to his ever-mucky chops.) The squabbles among his entourage are often comical, but also negligible, and not really enough to sustain a film of 135 minutes. As sunny summer diversion, La Chimera still has a lot going for it: gorgeous scenery, excellent weather, fine mosaics; resonant images, lovely faded pastel colours, a nice wistful, dreamy mood. It's an easy sell, which is probably why it's been the critical and commercial hit it is. Yet it's also the first Rohrwacher film I've seen where you have to look past the people for fullest enjoyment, which isn't the development one was seeking at this stage in her career.

La Chimera is now playing in selected cinemas.

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