A distillation of reality

Alice Rohrwacher on fairy tales and La Chimera

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Alice Rohrwacher: “Fairy tales are true, you know! Fairy tales are like a distillation of reality …”
Alice Rohrwacher: “Fairy tales are true, you know! Fairy tales are like a distillation of reality …” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In her introduction to La Chimera at the 61st New York Film Festival, Alice Rohrwacher paid tribute to Agnès Varda, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the recently departed Terence Davies, who had died the day before.

Alice Rohrwacher with Isabella Rossellini and Josh O'Connor
Alice Rohrwacher with Isabella Rossellini and Josh O'Connor Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

La Chimera, her latest excursion into the fantastic worlds underpinning rural Italy is the story of Arthur (Josh O'Connor), an Englishman who gangs up with a band of grave robbers to excavate Etruscan artefacts, which are then sold to a mysterious entity named Spartaco (Alba Rohrwacher). Arthur returns by train from a stint in jail to the makeshift sheet metal hut where he used to do business. It lies on the side of a hill, below a, once upon a time, grand estate and belongs to wheelchair user Flora (Isabella Rossellini, also seen in Susanna Fogel’s latest, Cat Person).

The roof has serious leaks, and much of the furniture has been looted, partly by her own daughters, who appear and disappear as though they were fairies who haven’t made up their minds if they wanted to do good or curse their mother. Chairs are being used for firewood by the new maid, Italia (Carol Duarte), who does chores in exchange for singing lessons.

Arthur, who used to be the partner of Flora’s daughter Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello), has a special talent - with the help of a divination rod made from a tree branch he can detect water underground. Where there’s water, there is likely a grave, and where there’s a grave, there are the objects dear to the dead, which are not meant to be seen any longer by the eyes of the living.

Arthur (Josh O'Connor) with Spartaco (Alba Rohrwacher) in La Chimera
Arthur (Josh O'Connor) with Spartaco (Alba Rohrwacher) in La Chimera

The “archaeologists,” as they like to see themselves, sometimes accompanied by Melodie (Lou Roy-Lecollinet of Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days) who takes photos and works for Spartaco, go on their nightly missions with vigour. The dead don’t scare them. Arthur, on the other hand, has fainting spells upon finding a lucrative spot underground.

A red thread unravelled from a rainbow-colored knitted dress, an abandoned train station that belongs to all and no one, the marble head of the goddess of animals underwater, the tradition of hand-drawn murder ballads, the grammar of Italian hand gestures, a lot of humour and wisdom - La Chimera (a highlight in the Main Slate of the festival) bewitches with its truth.

Anne-Katrin Titze: As always in your films, there are lots of elements of fairy tales and legend and myth. There is Ariadne in this case and maybe the daughters are like three fairies, good or evil, and there are seven, 'little' digging helpers of Arthur. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Flora (Isabella Rossellini) in La Chimera
Flora (Isabella Rossellini) in La Chimera

Alice Rohrwacher: Fairy tales are true, you know! Fairy tales are like a distillation of reality, they’re like a grappa of reality. They always stem from a real happening and they go back to it and give it back. This is the way that I have approached reality, in a non-pornographic way, so to speak. By exploring something that happens in reality, but I give it back in a distilled manner. Definitely in all of my films there is this element of magic. I am sort of ashamed of it.

And I want to take a step back and talk about embarrassment. For example, the image of the red thread. I was embarrassed about it, because it’s such a commonplace image. When you think about a red thread, that’s shameful. I can come up with something more complex than that! That is almost banal! That is so commonplace, so everyday. But in this embarrassment there is something that’s true. There’s truth in it.

So I think that out of this embarrassment we can take some things that are alive. Some elements that are straightforward, that are revelatory. And we can start from that and then give them body, the way I did with the red thread. And sometimes, being able to do something like that, is something that surprises myself as well.

Isabella Rossellini at the 61st New York Film Festival La Chimera screening
Isabella Rossellini at the 61st New York Film Festival La Chimera screening Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The remaining screening during the 61st New York Film Festival of La Chimera is on Thursday, October 12 at 6:30pm, preceded by: Pier Paolo Pasolini – Agnès Varda – New York – 1967 - Museum of the Moving Image

The New York Film Festival Main Slate selection committee, chaired by Dennis Lim, also includes Florence Almozini, Justin Chang, K. Austin Collins, and Rachel Rosen.

The 61st New York Film Festival runs through Sunday, October 15.

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