Going Underground: Alice Rohrwacher’s "La chimera"

In Rohrwacher’s films, the spirit world is ever immanent, and the living are surrounded by signs they have forgotten how to read.
Robert Rubsam

La chimera (Alice Rohrwacher, 2023).

Around 1655, a group of rural laborers were excavating a field in Norfolk, England, when they dug up a collection of ancient urns, small clay vessels filled with ashes, bones, and various grave goods: combs, tweezers, brass plates, and a blue opal, possibly once set into a ring. More than a thousand years before, this field had served as a cemetery, and if not for an agricultural accident, it would have remained unknown. 

The find so impressed the scholar, doctor, and writer Sir Thomas Browne that he began his 1658 Urne-Buriall with the following: “Nature hath furnished one part of the Earth, and man another. The treasures of time lie high, in Urnes, Coynes, and Monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables.” He marveled at the survival of these fragile vessels, which, though “in a yard underground, and thin walls of clay, [have] out-worn all the strong and specious buildings above it,” and brought with them treasures from the deep past. Yet this survival is fragmentary, illusory, and profoundly limited. Browne was a melancholic, a man for whom, to use W. G. Sebald’s phrase, “on every new thing there [lay] already the shadow of annihilation.” He regarded the underearth as a place of riches, yes, but also of death and decay, dust and ashes, a place which marks the hard limit of all “mortall vanities.” The living and the dead are bonded; soon enough all are joined beneath the ground.

According to historian Thomas W. Laqueur, caring for dead bodies “is a, if not the, sign of our emergence from the order of nature into culture.” Humans have buried their dead for tens of thousands of years; even Neanderthals placed flowers in their graves. Wealthy Pazyryk horse warriors filled their mound tombs with Chinese silks and Persian carpets, and the ancient Greeks and Romans placed a coin under the tongues of the deceased, so as to pay the ferryman for their trip to the underworld. A grave is called a place of rest, and for good reason; what goes in rarely comes out. “But who knows the fate of his bones,” asks Browne, “or how often he is to be buried?”

As Alice Rohrwacher shows in La chimera (2023), what was once buried is often dragged back into the light. It is the 1980s, and Arthur (Josh O’Connor) is an English archaeologist, of a kind, a man who ekes out a living exhuming Etruscan tombs across the Tuscan hills. He lives in a place thick with history, where ancient bodies really do lie scarce below the roots of vegetables and are ever-present to its inhabitants. As the leader of a band of grave-robbing tombaroli, he possesses a keen sensitivity for the places of the dead, feeling his way across sepulchral paths with the help of a dowsing rod. Though the role, like that of any seer, contains a large portion of role-play, his gifts yield real discoveries: long-forgotten tombs full of grave goods for the tombaroli to sell up in Switzerland. 

La chimera (Alice Rohrwacher, 2023).

When the film begins, Arthur has just gotten out of jail, nabbed during a failed dig. In his rumpled suit and five-day beard, he cuts a romantic figure, as if he were simply making a stop on his Grand Tour. He might live in the human world, but his heart is set on Hades. Some years before, Arthur loved Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello), a young Italian woman who seems to have drawn him to Tuscany. But then she died, a loss which neither Arthur nor Flora (Isabella Rossellini), Beniamina’s wry and imperious mother, are willing to accept. Flora speaks of her daughter only in the present tense, as if the girl had simply gone off on a trip and might return at any moment. She places her faith in Arthur and his powers, pushing him to play Orpheus, to search for a door to the underworld and a path to his Eurydice.  

This is a mythic task, and for a time, a delusional one: his chimera, at once destiny and folly. Rohrwacher tends to fill her films with defiant, mule-headed dreamers whose helpless determination to do things in their own way has a bad habit of dragging others down with them. The beekeeping family in The Wonders (2014) is led by a father whose past as a radical, possibly apocalyptic, environmentalist has left them unable to keep up with changing regulations, or even their rent. Happy as Lazzaro (2018) centers around a boy so simple, saintly, and miraculous that he can’t help but see his own exploitation as a gift. The two men are quite different from the seedy, dashing Arthur, yet all three are compelled to pursue their unique visions of existence to the point of disaster. 

These are archetypal characters—the quester, the rebel, the fool—and Rohrwacher, who studied classics at the University of Turin, has increasingly deployed myth and allegory to tell their stories. Where her 2011 debut Corpo Celeste traded in the jagged, handheld social realism of the Dardennes, Lazzaro allows elements of the magical and miraculous into its otherwise dusty verisimilitude. La chimera continues this trend, placing Arthur’s magical gift within Etruria, a wet and leafy world filled with finely observed, subtly deployed period detail—with Arthur’s magical gift. This tension between blue jeans and magic only heightens the strangeness of the latter, and generates the sense that he might really find that portal.

After all, the underearth has coughed up many strange things. In December of 1994, three cave explorers tunneled into a cliff in southeastern France’s Ardèche Valley. Inside was a cavern—later named Chauvet, after one member of the trio—and on the walls were were the paw prints of a wolf, ibex bones, impressions left by sleeping cave bears, and hundreds of images, painted by hand, of horses, aurochs, cave hyenas, wooly mammoths, and rhinoceroses, dating back 37,000 years. An entire world, preserved only because the cliffs guarding the cave’s entrance collapsed before decay could set in.

La chimera (Alice Rohrwacher, 2023).

As Werner Herzog reflects in his documentary on the Chauvet Cave, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), such places have an incomprehensible effect on the contemporary viewer: they are the remnant of a lost world, and their artwork represents a cosmology inaccessible to us. A single figure can have many heads, legs, antlers. On the surface of one stalactite is the image of a woman fusing with a buffalo, a fluid double-figure at once human and animal, without a clear dividing line. One of Herzog’s interview subjects describes the cosmology of Aurignacian humans as being both fluid—a man could become an auroch could become a tree—and permeable: a world open to spirits, gods, and the strange. John Berger writes of the Chauvet paintings as figures that have “come through the rock,” suggesting a unity between artist and subject, paint and surface, which we can imagine but never understand.

La chimera works to exhume that unity. Arthur performs the role of a medium, a conduit between the present and the past, the living and the dead. For him, at least, Tuscany remains a permeable place. As he approaches the places of the dead, Arthur grows woozy and faint, as if the spirit world were encroaching upon his own, an inversion Rohrwacher enacts by rapidly flipping the image, so that Arthur seems to be standing on the underside of the ground, with his head deep in the earth. She deploys multiple film formats to illustrate the successive layers of his vision: 35mm for tombs, Super 16mm for most of the dialogue scenes, and, in amateur 16mm, a series of hyper-saturated images meant to convey Arthur’s heightened perspective. We see ruins, forests, and flights of birds, worldly phenomena which, for the Etruscans, manifested the divine and augured the future. Rohrwacher evokes the enchantment of these environments, in which the spirit world is always immanent, and the living are surrounded by signs they have forgotten how to read. 

Looking out on a landscape of ancient tombs, home to forgotten bones, Arthur and his tombaroli friends decide to make their mark. Hoping for a good price from their fence, Spartaco (Rohrwacher’s sister and constant collaborator, Alba), they dig up both undiscovered tombs and heritage sites which the state has designated, but cannot afford to protect. Why leave that wealth to molder and rust underground, when it could be better spent up here, on the living? “They were the sons of themselves,” Rohrwacher writes of the real-life tombaroli in the film’s press notes. “The world belonged to them: they could enter what were regarded as taboo places, smash vases and steal votive offerings, and sell them on.” Arthur’s gang mocks anyone who worries about the spirits that haunt these disenchanted places. The sacred, the taboo, the invisible: none of it exists for them. There is only the immediate, the sensuous, the consumable. For them, as for the Protestant cleric Martin Bucer, “bones are bones, and not gods.”

La chimera (Alice Rohrwacher, 2023).

The crew is certainly a ribald bunch, like one of Federico Fellini’s clownish gangs, introduced preparing for a festival in which they will ride through town on a tractor, drunk and dolled-up as witches. It would be tempting to view them as part of what Simon Leys calls the “empire of ugliness,” the great community of people so humiliated by the beautiful that they can only sell it off or destroy it. The history and patrimony of their home is worth only what it will fetch in clandestine cash. Yet as La chimera’s recurring cantastorie, a folk singer whose ballads Rohrwacher deploys to tell the tale of Arthur and his band, reminds us: “the tombarolo is a drop in the ocean.” However much damage they do, the group are just bit players in an international production.

The history of archaeology and discovery is also a history of plunder. How else did the Parthenon marbles end up in London, or the gates of Pergamon in Berlin? Already in 1658, Browne could write that “where profit hath prompted, no age hath wanted such miners.” In his time, looted Egyptian mummies were ground up for their medicinal properties; in ours, their bodies lie lonely under glass. English archaeologists opened Irish passage tombs with dynamite and spirited the spoils off to Cambridge. Our museums are filled with talismans, votive objects, grave goods, religious texts, and exhumed bones, most of dubious provenance. The story continues today. The Museum of the Bible, in Washington, DC, has a history of acquiring looted antiquities with forged documentation. A 16th-century Nepalese ritual mask was stolen from its custodians in the 1990s and smuggled to auction. It entered the collection at the Rubin Museum in 2005, and evidence of its origin only came to light in 2022, after which it was finally repatriated to Nepal.

The tombaroli might not have the dashing (or credentials) of an Indiana Jones, but they fulfill the same function, ripping relics out of the earth and marooning them in foreign lands. What was common in Browne’s day has become epidemic in ours, fueled by an international antiquities market serving double duty as a funnel for money laundering. When Arthur’s crew finally meets with Spartaco, it is aboard her boat on Lake Geneva, where the fence presents herself as a reputable antiquities dealer, serving a clientele of museum curators from around the world. 

Yet even when her artifacts are intact, Spartaco is engaged in an act of profound desecration. The Etruscans cut large family tombs into the rock of central Italy, and designed them to look like residences, with stone furniture and elaborately frescoed walls. They filled their necropolises with beautiful grave goods, everyday objects to accompany the dead on their way to the afterlife. These tombs were meant to be kept together, as in Berger’s unity of the worldly and the sacred. Scattered into softly lit glass cases the world over, bones, goods, and stones lose their unity, their context, and their purpose.

La chimera (Alice Rohrwacher, 2023).

One night, Arthur and his band are celebrating their latest score on the coast, at a bandstand in the shadow of a power plant. They run down to the beach to swim in the dirty water, when Arthur finds himself “lost in his chimeras,” drawn to a neglected, trash-strewn site backed up to the wall of the power plant. The call is destabilizing, overpowering, a rapid inversion that flips him back and forth between worlds. The tombaroli begin to dig—and then Rohrwacher places us inside of the tomb. Without people, the shrine is harmonious and calm, a sacred space of small votive figurines and perfectly preserved frescoes. We linger in the space, and we are allowed to recognize what a miracle it is, this place whose beauty has survived the centuries. Then, in a moment out of Fellini’s Roma (1972), the shrine opens, humidity floods the frescoes, and all at once the paint begins to decay, to dim, to die. Without even knowing it, the tombaroli have destroyed the place with little more than a gust of fresh air.

Arthur’s companions crow over the sanctuary’s seemingly pristine state—they’re going to be rich! But the seer is still flooded with spiritual energy. On a pedestal rising from a reflecting pool is the pristine marble statue of a goddess posed with her lion. She could be Rhea or, as Spartaco suggests, Sibyl; they don’t know her identity for sure, and neither do we. While the others plan how to remove the figure of the goddess, Arthur is entranced by her eyes, which seem to peer into his, a look back from the underworld. When they decapitate her, Arthur revolts; perhaps he finally recognizes how debased his gift has become.

His naïveté is a bit much. After all, even to open a tomb is to defile it. The spelunkers in Il buco (2021) drop burning newsmagazine pages into the caverns below them, illuminating the way as they pollute it. Herzog notes that visitors to other painted caves have caused mold to grow on the walls. Only one of Browne’s urns survives today. Simply by discovering the shrine, Arthur and the tombaroli have destroyed it. The dead want to be left alone.

Yet in Rohrwacher’s Etruria, this just isn’t possible. Her films have often deployed highly suggestive imagery—a crucifix floating in the ocean, a bee crawling from the mouth of a young girl—and even explicitly miraculous conceits, to gesture at a moreness lurking beneath the surface of life. Midway through Lazzaro, the simple boy falls to his death, and then, decades later, he wakes back up, rising like his namesake from the land of the dead. Lazzaro’s resurrection turns him into a relic, and when he runs into acquaintances from his old life, they treat him like a ghost. Yet he is still the same simple boy, more saint than spirit, and Rohrwacher’s naturalistic attention to fine-grained details presents his return as mundane, not miraculous. However strange his survival, his world is still ours.

La chimera (Alice Rohrwacher, 2023).

La chimera expands this vision. On the train back from Switzerland, Arthur is approached by characters he met earlier in the movie, who demand to know the location of their grave goods. Without these everyday objects, they have become alienated from the afterlife, condemned to wander in search of what was stolen from their tombs. Rohrwacher presents these spirits matter-of-factly, reflecting the Etruscan view of the world as a place where all visible things manifest the divine. Like Arthur’s gift, they are an eruption of enchantment into an otherwise denuded world, irrepressible, overwhelming, and undeniable. Their presence destabilizes a purely materialist concept of filmmaking, in which only the visible world counts, as only it can be captured by the camera. In contrast, Rohrwacher shows us the world and the things of our world, and then she pushes beyond it, using signs, symbols, and myths to illuminate the invisible: the world beyond our world, the land of the dead.

If the rationalist project of modernity has been to banish the unknown and the uncomfortable from all corners of life, then art like Rohrwacher’s lets just a bit of it slip back in from the margins. La chimera insists on the haunting strangeness of a world in which so much, from the cosmology of the Chauvet painters to the heart of one’s beloved, can remain fundamentally unknowable. Rohrwacher insists on the coexistence of death and life, and on our cohabitation with the past. For, as Sebald remarks elsewhere, the dead are forever returning to us. However strange they appear—as ashes, as bones, as bodies mummified in bogs or in ice—we recognize them, because they were once like us, or rather, because we will one day become them. “We live with death,” writes Browne, “and die not in a moment.” Sooner than later, we all pay the ferryman.

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Alice RohrwacherWerner HerzogFederico Fellini
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