Movie Review: Alice Rohrwacher's tombaroli tale 'La Chimera' is pure magic

When we talk about “movie magic,” the first thing that comes to mind is often something like the bikes achieving liftoff in “E.T.” But it applies no less to Alice Rohrwacher’s wondrous “La Chimera,” a grubbily transcendent folk tale of a film that finds its enchantment buried in the ground.

“Were you dreaming?” a train conductor asks the sleeping Arthur (Josh O’Connor), a distant, temperamental Brit in Italy with little more to his name than the rumpled cream-colored linen suit he wears. The answer is yes. Radiant memories of Arthur’s dead lover, Benjamina, haunt his dreams and propel him on a strange quest into the underground tombs of Tuscany.

A melancholy spell seems to hang over Arthur, who has a mystical gift for finding ancient relics. It’s the early 1980s. Arthur is returning home from a stint in jail for grave robbing. His homecoming is received like a hero’s return by the scruffy, carnivalesque band of tombaroli — tomb raiders who plunder Etruscan artifacts — who look on Arthur more like a prince than a destitute thief. They call him “maestro.”

With remarkable precision, Arthur is able to point to where to dig. In one scene, he takes a small, bended branch as an instrument for his dowsing. “La Chimera,” itself, seems to emerge almost the same way — an earthy, spellbinding buried treasure with a sublime drawing power.

The precise moment I fell totally in love with “La Chimera” — and this is very much a movie to love — is an early montage in which Arthur and his fellow scavengers scamper across the countryside, hiding in fields from bumbling police, while a folk song about the tombarolo Englishman is sung. “La Chimera,” the third in a loose trilogy for Rohrwacher following “The Wonders” and “Happy as Lazzaro,” is the fullest realization yet of her cinema of “magical neo-realism.”

Rohrwacher’s great fascination is with the past. The hold it can have on the present. The vast yet minuscule distance between long-ago and today. “Happy as Lazzaro” charmingly walked a 19th century peasant into present day.

“La Chimera” is even more beguiling and mournful. The tombaroli make a merry band, but Arthur’s plight is shadowed by death. “He was looking for a passage to the afterlife,” one of his companions says in the film, one of a handful of direct addresses. (Rohrwacher, a devotee of Italian folk tales, spins her films like a playful narrator in an old fairy tale. She's among the most thrillingly original filmmakers working today.)

Arthur and company make cash by selling their unearthed Etruscan wares. But he’s driven less by money than a compulsion to reach the dead, to reach Benjamina. How deep will he dig? Will the darkness of the underworld envelop him?

Arthur also makes occasional visits to the mother of Benjamina, Flora (a typically magnificent Isabella Rossellini ), who, like him, has not yet accepted the death of her daughter. She receives him courteously and deferentially, with an old-world manner. Flora's other daughters snicker that she only lets men smoke in the house.

At her crumbling villa, Arthur meets Italia (Carol Duarte, fabulous), a singing student who, Flora says, is tone deaf. But she might be the sharpest observer in the film. Italia, alone, is horrified by the plundering of the graves. In other ways, she's the embodiment of the time the tombs recall. It's noted that the Etruscans elevated women in society — one of, though not the only, relic of the past that “La Chimera” brings forward to today.

Past and present mingle in mysterious ways in “La Chimera.” The greatest Etruscan discovery — a glorious subterranean chamber — is made on a beach with a factory just down the shoreline. But the even more remarkable excavation of the film is of Arthur’s grieving soul. O’Connor is exquisite in a role that requires the deftest balance of tangible reality and otherworldly fable.

Like so many things in “La Chimera,” O'Connor's performance is entrancing and confounding. How can a movie be so nimbly poised between past and present, you can't help but wonder. The stuff of fairy tales — of a kind of storytelling magic — is what Rohrwacher, herself, wants to unearth. “Were you dreaming?” Good question.

"La Chimera,” a Neon release, is not rated by the Motion Picture Association. In Italian with English subtitles. Running time: 133 minutes. Four stars out of four.