My Roman Empire

La Chimera

Photo: Courtesy of NYFF

Iscroll TikTok most nights before bed to dull my senses, enough to fall asleep. This basically never works. The ambient blue light and droning “here’s what I eat a week” usually make me more hyper. I slept alone most of the summer, my partner away  tending to urgent matters of family. On TikTok there are trends and microtrends that fold into each other, radio waves fizzling and overlapping. One from the warm months—maybe summer, maybe fall, the 70 degree days all blending together—pitted girlfriends against boyfriends, wives against husbands, women asking the distracted men in their homes how often they thought about the Roman Empire. “Every day,” the boyfriends would tell them. “Constantly,” the husbands said. 

What this was meant to prove was kind of beyond me. Most things I see online are beyond me, though, which is not to say “too complicated” so much as none of my business. Men think about history; women… do what? A verbal shorthand developed: “My Roman Empire is…” Similarly: this is beyond me. A new and retooled “I can’t stop thinking about,” “I’m haunted by,” and so on. To feign a gendered distinction about memory—collective or otherwise —is a game. History sits uncomfortably back of mind, whether we want it there or not.

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Arthur (Josh O’Connor) is haunted. He is restless. Visions of a lover lost—Beniamina (Yile Vianello) surrounded by stone, wearing red, a thread of her dress trailing behind her. Is she missing or dead? What’s the difference? When he sleeps, she fills his dreams. 

Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera begins on a train. Arthur returns home, sprung from jail, stinking and dirty. What got him there in the first place—jail—doesn’t matter. Arthur is a thief, gentleman or otherwise; he wears a suit if that helps to distinguish. What precisely got him out of jail doesn’t matter either. He’s making his way back to what appears to be home. We as viewers may know that O’Connor is not Italian. The up-and-coming English actor has worked on some particularly English projects: The Crown, Emma, God’s Own Country. O’Connor by way of Arthur is not so much blending into Italy as eluding it by way of silence. Arthur isn’t rude; he exudes a quiet curiosity. He points out one of the young women’s noses—prominent, triangular. It feels ancient. She laughs, her skin too young to wrinkle. In his dreams, it doesn’t matter what language he speaks.

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Another TikTok girl: “Call me crazy,” she yells at the camera, “but I hate store-bought pesto.” This clip has been stitched, which is to say cut and edited by other TikTok users. “Call me crazy! ” and then someone will cut her off and say something as “crazy” as hating store-bought pesto (meaning, idiosyncratic but otherwise “normal,” as far as anything can be). I found this trend neither funny nor interesting. “Call me crazy!” and I’d swipe away as soon as I could. I knew only mundanity could follow. The “call me crazy!” echoed anytime I stumbled upon something that threatened to feel like an original thought. 

Call me crazy but I don’t like to lose things. If I misplace something or leave behind a pair of sunglasses in a cab (it’s happened twice), I am overcome with immeasurable panic. I scour, I search. I am inconsolable. I think of everything that’s ever vanished: a mood ring at summer camp, a balloon at a 4th of July carnival, a toy watch on vacation. I realize vague aphorisms about life on earth—this is all temporary, nothing belongs to us—but I want what little I have to stay with me for as long as possible.

In a year marked by so much death, I stumbled around in the dark trying to find the language I wanted to use to describe what was happening around me. We lost this person; I’m experiencing loss. This felt more panic-inducing and less real than death, dying. It felt like a lie. It implied that people could be found, or if not found, recovered. That was wrong. Yet I saw enough wincing at what felt to me like easy phrases: he died; she is dying. Died. Death — the hard “d” sound. Finite, complete. “Passed away”—I don’t know what this means, it gives me no sense of the world. 

A year of loss, then. “I need everyone around me to stop dying,” I told a friend. It wasn’t my fault; it was theirs. Call me crazy, etc.

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When Arthur returns home, he can go one of two ways. He can return to his old group of friends, a ragtag gang of tomboroli—tomb raiders—with whom he got himself into trouble in the first place. He is the leader, though he does not especially want to be blessed and/or cursed with the gift of being able to sense when he stands above a grave. His team, on the other hand, are good at digging, good at dusting, good at preserving vases and toys and other artifacts. They’re on the hunt for Etruscan relics, tomb trinkets that predate the birth of Christ. His old friends follow him around on Arthur’s first day back, cramming alongside him in Pirro’s (Vincenzo Nemolato—also excellent in Martin Eden) little green car. Arthur shrugs them off. The crime has lost its shine.

On the other side of town, however, is Flora (Isabella Rossellini—who better), an aging widow and the mother of Arthur’s lost love Beniamina. Like Arthur, she refuses to discuss Beniamina in terms of certainty, in the language of death. Beniamina is simply away. Soon she will be back. Flora lives in a withering old manor, the paint peeling off the walls. Her vulturous daughters and granddaughters swoop in, grabbing old textiles and lamps.

The one breath of fresh air in Flora’s rotting house is her new servant—I mean student, actually I mean servant—Italia (Carol Duarte), who takes singing lessons in exchange for ironing and folding and cooking and cleaning and pushing Flora around in her wheelchair. With her big bright eyes and flyaway curls, Flora moves through this old space with a burst of energy. She is all angles, jerky and awkward, out of tune and out of touch. Hidden away in the upper floors of the house are two children she looks after (are they hers? Only so much as we know she takes care of them). It’s their secret, Italia and Arthur. One of Flora’s daughters thinks she hears something (a cry?), but convinces herself it’s the creaking and moaning of an old place.

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Here’s something I caught the second time around: when Arthur and the tomboroli march through the town on Epiphany, Rohrwacher allows the gaze of the camera to shift onto the local marching band, playing a jaunty tune. She focuses almost uncomfortably on one of the musicians, a young-looking man with a soft face. I laughed. “That’s Lazzaro,” I said aloud, referring to Adriano Tardiolo who played the titular Lazzaro in Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro. IMDb and other casting websites carry no evidence that Tardiolo appears in La Chimera. Uncredited cameo? A doppelganger? Some other inexplicable coincidence? We see what we want when we look back on time. I know what I saw, but maybe I’m making it up. 

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Like all thieves the tomboroli have one big score in mind—it’s only that they don’t know what it is. When your safe is not a bank safe, but something under the ground, packed and mysterious, each mound of dirt shoveled out of the way presents a different fate. For the most part, Arthur’s crew are used to little hauls: vases, pitches, cups, plates, toys. Arthur pockets a rattle––for Italia’s baby. Everyone in town seems to know this is what they do, and the tomboroli have no interest in profit-sharing. This is not Robin Hood. They are not noble. They are scoundrels, but everyone loves them anyway.

La Chimera shifts from winter to spring. The cold, hard dirt of January shifts to golden harvests in the summer. Gray skies turn blue. Arthur readjusts to his home, his friends, his life. Maybe there is a world in which he and his friends keep robbing and running from the police. They make enough money to get by. They make enough money to enjoy a big pot of spaghetti together. When Arthur’s crew step into a tomb, they approach the artifacts with wide-eyed optimism. This could be worth a lot. When Arthur himself steps in—he always gets to go first; he finds them after all, a dowsing rod signaling where he might walk up against the underworld—he is disappointed. Surely, inside one of these ancient, sealed places is Beniamina. The tomboroli return to the land of the living, their pockets heavier. Arthur carries himself with a great weight, whether there is something in his arms or not.

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I see Arthur, who is handsome and stoic and shy and thoughtful, and  think about the grieving men of films past—I think of Leonardo DiCaprio’s squinting, weepy Dominick Cobb in Inception (what, like you forgot he’s named Dominick Cobb?), I think of Casey Affleck’s comatose Lee in Manchester by the Sea. I think of the weight of the world resting on one man who once had something and now doesn’t. Loss is admitting to a type of possession. Or worse: loss is to admit a lack of possession in the first place.

Because I hoard—if not physically, then digitally—every loss has some evidence, an old email or a text or a DM, to which I can return. It’s all still there. I keep meticulous records. If anyone goes, if anything happens, I know exactly how to travel back and revisit the time in which it has not yet happened. When a friend died—when a friend passed away? When I lost my friend?—right before the end of the year, the first thing I did was go back into my email to search for our correspondence. What this would prove, I am not totally sure. That it was real, that it was there, that I can preserve it as long as possible so that I know.

La Chimera’s tombs are not just those underground, full of artifacts Etruscan and not. They are literal, everywhere. Flora’s house, Arthur’s shack, the little town in which the film takes place. Ruins push up against industry, smoke stacks and factories and cargo ships in the distance. I think of Ralph Fiennes taking a piss in A Bigger Splash before he is scolded that he could be peeing on someone’s grave. “Europe’s a grave!” he spits into the earth.

What La Chimera offers, in turn, is a glimpse into the world outside of the graves—the laughter, the beer, the big pot of noodles. There is a warmth to fresh air, a clean shirt. All you have to do is reach out and take it.

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(But it is warm in the tombs too—they exist in a world of their own up until the second a door is cracked ajar. In the film’s most dazzling sequence, we catch a glimpse of the inside of a yet-to-be opened temple. The walls are adorned with vibrant paintings, everything arranged just so. And then—poof! The rush of wind, the sweep of oxygen. The walls dull, the magic fades. There was something in there, you know, whether you can feel it or not.)

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Italia takes Arthur’s gift as a sign of flirtation; she’s not wrong to interpret it as such. The two begin a gentle romance—a glance, a dance. They are not all over each other. They don’t know how to be. Neither are Italian by nature; they teach each other the language they need to get by. He keeps the secret of her children safe. They invent reasons to see each other.

Italia does not know what Arthur does for a living. She doesn’t know what his friends do for a living. Is she stupid? A little, but consider the circumstances. So many of the townspeople willfully let the tomboroli onto their property and are then promptly stolen from. We make our own ignorance in order to feel slighted. When Arthur is overcome—a tomb? Where is it? Below, always—with what the tomborolis call his chimeras (his dreams), she steps back, waiting and hoping for magic. What they do, in turn, horrifies her. They steal from the dead. They pillage the graves. She tosses the rattle in her purse, the one for her children, back into the earth. It falls onto the sand without a sound. These things are in the ground because they belong there. They don’t just go to whoever gets their first.

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I saw La Chimera at the New York Film Festival. It played, subsequently, at a few other fall festivals before it was released, somewhat unceremoniously, into one single theater in Queens for a half-hearted “awards season run.” The film, in turn, will open in March—wide this time. To include it on my Best of 2023 list is to acknowledge a little secret; I’m aware this is annoying. It fits, though, with the feel of the film. This is an evasive work. It feels like a dream, talking to and over and under my sense of understanding. It feels like I made it up. It was the film of my year—the year when there was so much lost. All these things were mine. Whose are they now that they’re missing?

Rohrwacher’s film carries its own language, its own world. This is not simply “Italy, in the 1980s” as much as it is a universe of its own making, one that happened to also have the Etruscans. Beniamina is in the tombs somewhere. It is better than believing she is lost. Can anything really be lost, or does it return to the (blue, gray, brown, gold) dirt? When she appears in Arthur’s visions, a red string trails behind her. Her dress snagged? Or maybe she left it, breadcrumbs. A text notification––gleaming in red at the bottom of my phone. If we don’t read, or know, or seek, maybe they can stay that way forever.