Alice Rohrwacher is in the Cannes competition for the third time with “La Chimera,” in which “The Crown” star Josh O’Connor plays a young British archeologist named Arthur who gets involved in an international network of stolen Etruscan artifacts during the 1980s.
For Rohrwacher, the film is connected to growing up in Umbria, once the center of the Etruscan civilization. But it’s also the final piece of a triptych on a territory that she started with her previous Cannes entries: “The Wonders” and “Happy as Lazzaro.” Three works that, as she has put it, pose a central question: “What to do with the past?”
Also starring in “La Chimera,” which can be loosely translated as “The Unrealizable Dream,” are Isabella Rossellini as a retired opera singer; Brazil’s Carol Duarte (“The Invisible Life”) as non-Italian woman who intersects with Arthur; Alba Rohrwacher as an international artifacts trafficker; and Vincenzo Nemolato (“Martin Eden”), who plays one of the “tombaroli” — literally “grave robbers” — as artifacts thieves are known in Italy. Produced — as all of Rohrwacher’s previous films, by Carlo Cresto-Dina — “La Chimera,” which bows in Cannes on May 26, is being sold by the Match Factory and will be released by Neon in the U.S.
Rohrwacher spoke to Variety about the many layers of “La Chimera” and why she shot it in three different film formats.
How did the story germinate?
The main theme of the film are the tombaroli, though there are lots of threads and layers. It’s like a tapestry. But the largest thread is the artifact thieves who have accompanied me throughout my life. The epic of my territory is the epic of the hidden treasure because I live in Umbria. Because everyone here, when I was younger, would tell tales [like], “That guy found a vase and sold it in Switzerland.” We knew that men at night would go digging. I found this so amazing. Not so much because it was illegal, but because they were going against something sacred: they were opening graves. This double aspect: the violation of an archeological artifact in a grave — not just as property of the state, but as something that was made to remain hidden — always amazed me. I would think, “Where do they find the courage to do this?” But talking to them, I understood that they wanted to sever their ties with the past.
How did you direct Josh O’Connor? I think it’s the first time you’ve cast an international star of this caliber in the lead role?
Josh is a very generous person, besides being a great actor. He made a huge effort to learn Italian and spent a lot of time with the tombaroli and established a rapport with them. It’s been a great professional and human discovery for me. He really delved into the character of Arthur. During the summer segment of the film he chose to live in a van because he wanted to live in Arthur’s shed to really feel this character. He is really passionate about pottery, so they way he touched ancient Etruscan pottery and other objects was very significant.
How did you cast O’Connor?
I had written a first version of the film based on an older character. But he wrote me, after seeing “Happy as Lazzaro.” When we met I saw Arthur. I thought it could only be him. So I asked him: “If I rewrite the film, changing his age, will you come on board?” And he said yes.
Working with your regular DOP Hélène Louvart you shot in three different types of formats: 35mm, Super 16mm and regular 16mm. Talk to me about this choice.
I think it’s a very important choice, whether the viewer realizes it or not. 35mm allows the viewer to enter the scene, like an illustration. It allows you to see more details, whereas Super 16 synthetizes, and details are less important than the overall image. But then during the shoot we also had an amateur 16mm camera. During my previous shoots it always occurred that something happened and I wanted to capture it. But we never managed. This time I wanted to be lighter. I wanted to take visual notes with a small camera to add this lightness to the film.
Watch Trailer Here