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“La Chimera” reviewed

Italian director Alice Rohrwacher has a genuine appreciation for faces, and she seizes upon a fine one in Josh O’Connor, whose alternately pleasant and surly countenance conceals as much as it expresses in La Chimera.

As an English expat traipsing about 1980s Tuscany in search of precious and elusive objects of desire, The Crown alum vacillates between pensive and impulsive, despairing and determined, his shifts in thought, demeanor, and perspective written intriguingly on his scruffy and sweaty visage. As a man with “the gift of finding lost things,” he’s the beguiling center of Rohrwacher’s attention, and his superb performance is the engine that drives this enchanting import about life and death, yesterday and today, and magic and realism.

Premiering in U.S. cinemas on March 29 following acclaimed showings at last year’s Cannes, Toronto, and New York film festivals, La Chimera fluidly intermingles its own dreams (of cinema’s past) with those of its protagonist Arthur (O’Connor), who’s introduced sleeping in a train car, his slumbering reveries—depicted as 16mm home movies—fixated on Beniamina (Yile Vianello), who in intimate close-up asks him, “Have you noticed the sun is following us?”

She’s referring to the star in the sky as well as the one tattooed on her shoulder, and while her comment’s full meaning won’t be clear until the story’s conclusion, it suggests ideas—of pursuit, and searching—that course through the film’s veins. Upon waking, Arthur charmingly tells one of his cabin’s female occupants that she has an “ancient” profile. Then he abruptly switches gears when a perfume salesman mocks his stench and he lashes out at the huckster, thereby emptying his quarters.

Arthur’s sour mood continues when he fails to avoid being picked up by his old friend Pirro (Vincenzo Nemolato) at the station and is taken to the town square where other acquaintances want to celebrate his return. Instead, he storms off to his home, a decrepit shack that’s held up by wooden posts, boasts a roof of corrugated metal, and sits against a stone wall on the edge of a hill. This messy abode is a perfect reflection of Arthur, whose cream-colored linen suit looks like it hasn’t been washed in forever (which may be true), whose socks are as ratty as his sandals, and whose cheeks are smudged and, as time goes on, covered in scraggly hair.

He’s far from put-together, although he’s nonetheless a welcome sight to Flora (Isabella Rossellini), who now gets around her crumbling house in a wheelchair and with the aid of Italia (Carol Duarte), to whom she gives singing lessons, and who in turn functions as her de facto servant. Flora tells Arthur not to abandon hope about Beniamina’s forthcoming return, and she’s then joined by her daughters and granddaughters, who fuss and flitter about like clucking chickens, criticizing both their matriarch and Italia.

La Chimera is filled with gaggles of distinctive individuals chatting and carousing in a boisterous, jubilant, boozy, messy manner that recalls Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and yet Rohrwacher is far from a simple imitator. Instead, she casts her own idiosyncratic spell via a collection of self-conscious touches—compositions that rotate to gaze at Arthur upside-down, and one instance in which a character turns to the camera, mid-sentence, to finish her comment—that draw us deeper into the action.