Words & Interview by

Hannah Strong


Illustration by

Polina Jakimova

Alice Rohrwacher: ‘The past must be a living thing’

The Italian filmmaker on the magical mystery tour into the past that makes up her gorgeous latest, La Chimera.

A filmmaker fascinated by the intersection between natural words and human civilisation, Alice Rohrwacher concludes her decade-long inquiry into the question of “What to do with the past?” with La Chimera, a striking fairy tale about a young archaeologist (played by Josh O’Connor) who becomes entangled with a group of tomb raiders in 1980s Italy.

LWLies: Where did your interest in the subject of tomb raiders begin?

Rohrwacher: This topic has concerned my life forever, concerned my region, concerned the whole Mediterranean – but in particular where I live is a place where, in the ’80s and ’90s, many men went to dig up treasures and told stories about their adventures. So it’s always something that impressed me, but even scared me since I was a child, not so much because it was against the law, but because these men came into the tombs at night and I was afraid when said they had found the body of a princess and when they lifted it out, it crumbled in their hands. They told very scary stories. Napoleon came to Italy and opened a lot of tombs to take the vases. A generation has arrived that feels as if it’s not linked to the past, that feels different, that no longer believes in the sacred. So this story fascinated me. Then during the pandemic, when death entered our lives in such a way that was collectively important, I decided to write this film that also talks about our relationship with the world of death.

Is the past sacred for you?

No, it’s not sacred to me, but the past must be a living thing. Normally if we look at the past we find either the glorification or the destruction of the past. We can only see our personal history as part of the history of humanity. Maybe if we do that, we can do something good.

Your work has been compared in the past to that of Roberto Rossellini’s because it has these almost utopian desires baked in, but with a real grounding in place. How did you come to work with Isabella Rossellini on La Chimera?

I’m a great admirer of Rossellini. When people say that we are alike, it’s not a superficial similarity, it certainly comes from a deep admiration. But I was very excited to work with Isabella Rossellini as well. I have a farm, so we were talking about farming a lot before deciding to make the movie because she’s also a farmer. She has a lot of animals and land, she knows everything. For me it was, of course, a dream to work with her, she’s a legend. She’s a guiding light in the film, not only because she’s the daughter of great Roberto and Ingrid, but because she’s a woman who is full of joy, peacefulness and energy.

You worked with cinematographer Hélène Louvart again, using a lot of different film stocks. How did you build the visuals of the film?

I am a great admirer of Hélène as a friend, a philosopher as well as an artist, and we decided, since the subject of the film is archaeology, we were going to use the history of cinema and the archaeology of cinema as inspiration. So we used different formats, 35mm, 16mm, Super 16 film stock, to tell the story of cinema. It was a game, but a game in the very positive meaning of the word, as the narration had to be serviced by the stock that we chose. And with Hélène, it’s never a matter of what is the most beautiful frame, but which will show our position the best.

There’s a relationship between La Chimera and your previous two features, Happy as Lazzaro and The Wonders. Were the films conceived of as a trilogy?

I’ve never actually had the project of making three films, but I realised that they are connected. Not as a trilogy, but as three paintings on an altar, and they share their relationship with the past. I took a long journey to be able to deal with this subject and it gave me also the opportunity to realise the reason why I’ve always felt so involved and so interested in archaeology. It’s the first steps that a child makes to go back to your mind years later. It’s the idea of a common childhood that we as human beings have shared in the past. I don’t understand why this time in the past is so fixed on the idea of an individual story. I think about the idea that my house was another thing before and it will be another thing after. The idea that there have been so many lives in the same space and that all the lives have been lived with great intensity, that there have been full of joy, fear, life, and death… it calms me down.

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Published 10 May 2024

Tags: Alice Rohrwacher La Chimera

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