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Alice Rohrwacher: ‘I want my films to feel like Pasolini’s, like they are parables’

Josh O’Connor stars in the director’s new feature as an archaeologist who falls in with a band of tomb-raiding thieves

In Ireland, grave-robbing is bound up with the ghoulish practices of the Victorian era. The Irish serial killers William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 people in 1828 to sell to the Edinburgh anatomist Robert Knox. That year James McCartney, a professor of anatomy at Trinity College Dublin, testified before a parliamentary select committee on the hiring of “resurrection men” to obtain corpses for his students.

In other European countries grave-robbing is a far more recent phenomenon. For her fourth feature, film-maker Alice Rohrwacher interviewed many tombaroli – Italian grave robbers – who worked across the mountainous Italian midlands where she grew up. This is a live issue. Last year 266 illicitly looted antiquities, including Etruscan vases, were returned from museums and private collections in the United States.

“The kind of raiding from tombs that you see in the film could not have happened until the 1980s,” says Rohrwacher. “Basically, the objects inside were viewed as magical and sacred. That created awe and fear in whoever came across them. Even farmers who came across golden objects never took them, because the objects belonged to the dead and were thought to be dangerous.

“The invisible part of the object was more important than the visible part. If people came across graves they’d not want to have anything to do with them. Graves were contaminated by their association with death and the other world. But in the 1980s there was a huge paradigm shift. Everything invisible no longer exists. Objects become merely objects. And you can make lots of money by desecrating and plundering tombs and selling those objects.”


La Chimera stars Josh O’Connor as a British archaeologist with a supernatural gift for finding graves (and a taste for crumpled colonial linens) who falls in with a band of thieves during the 1980s. His illegal excavations – the grave robbers specialise in Etruscan artefacts – serve as adventurous escapades and a commentary on lost love. Despite the romantic attentions of his fellow tombarolo Pirro (Vincenzo Nemolato), he yearns for Beniamina, his missing former girlfriend and the daughter of villa owner Flora (Isabella Rossellini).

“One of the most experimental aspects of the film was to play with highly contrasting things,” says Rohrwacher. “When Josh’s character is introduced in the first scene on the train, there are these beautiful girls. And then there’s this unpleasant episode with a salesman. So you can think straight away that this is the story of a person with psychological problems.

“But then we hear the overture of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. This tells us that, yes, he is a romantic hero. But he’s also a ridiculous hero. You can tell by looking at him. He’s a romantic hero in a world that no longer has anything romantic about it.”

O’Connor, currently at the top of the box office with Challengers, is a Rohrwacher superfan. He wrote to her after seeing Happy as Lazzarro, which won the award for best screenplay at Cannes in 2018. The actor lived in a camper van and bathed in a lake during the La Chimera shoot. He also learned Italian and some sign language (skills he’ll soon be transferring to Rosebushpruning, Karim Aïnouz’s remake of the Marco Bellocchio film Fists in the Pocket, co-starring Kristen Stewart and Elle Fanning).

“The arrival of Josh was a complete revelation,” says Rohrwacher. “He’s an actor I knew and admired immensely but I thought he was too young to interpret this character. However, he’s got this extraordinary capacity of being timeless. So I rewrote the character thinking of him – not only thinking of him but talking to him, collaborating with him. He has a great passion for ceramics and poetry and architecture. He understands the aura of objects. And then of course he’s an actor of rare generosity and rare imagination.”

Wherever you go, the earth is chucking out tiny pieces of ancient artefacts that have been broken and fragmented. This gives me a different perspective on time

—  Alice Rohrwacher

Born to a German father and Italian mother, Rohrwacher grew up in her mother’s Umbrian village, where her father was a beekeeper. She read classics at the University of Turin and later studied screenwriting. Her rural upbringing continues to inform her work. Happy as Lazzarro recruited Umbrian locals as cast members and to plant a tobacco crop in its quasi-feudal fantasy drama.

“Growing up in Italy, in such a strongly archaeological region, it’s almost impossible to go for a walk without finding microfragments of antiques,” says Rohrwacher. “We are talking really about tiny little pieces and just a few millimetres deep. But, wherever you go, the earth is chucking out tiny pieces of ancient artefacts that have been broken and fragmented.

“This gives me a different perspective on time as a concept. In the present time I not only see what is present but also what is past. The present for me is not only what I have to do; it’s also asking what are the things that we have to leave to the archaeologists of the future, once we ourselves have become the past.”

The Wonders, Rohrwacher’s first narrative feature, won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014. Her short, Le Pupille, was nominated for an Oscar in 2023. Her films are one of a kind and yet steeped in Italian cinema, a riotous marriage of Roberto Rossellini’s neorealism, Lina Wertmüller’s knockabout, Federico Fellini’s carnivalesque and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s spiritualism.

“I adore Pasolini,” says Rohrwacher. “His films are poetic and I consume a lot of poetry. It’s very important to me. I want my films to feel like his, like they are parables. I’m more interested in destiny than psychology.”

Rohrwacher’s passion for Italian film history is part of La Chimera’s appropriately hybrid DNA. Working with the veteran cinematographer Hélène Louvart, the film-maker switches between 35mm and Super16 stocks.

“At university I became really interested in the history of cinema,” Rohrwacher says. “It combined true life and all the arts that I loved. That prompted me to go back and find the great masterpieces of cinema. Cinema also has its own archaeological history.”

La Chimera is in cinemas from Friday, May 10th