La Chimera

Victoria O’Brien
Desert Island Dispatches

As a full disclosure, I wrote about 500 words about the actual business of filmmaking, which has been my bread and butter, and absolute passion, for the past decade, before realizing that I should reel it in — do you get the joke? — and focus on the real reason you read this column, which I don’t actually know, but assume is not that. All said, if you’d like to talk about four-quadrant filmmaking, the Paramount Accords, independent filmmaking in the 1970s, and why you can’t see a good movie fit for grown ups in 2024, come by on a Thursday morning and we can chat. I’ll bore you to tears, free of charge.
Anyway, I watched a very slow, strange art house movie a couple weeks ago — I have family in town and haven’t been doing much thinking, reading, writing, or anything as a result, just flying on autopilot — and have been turning it over in my head because it’s one of those movies that’s so good it just gives you something to think about. And I love movies like that because they feel a little bit like a poem, which is to say they change you.
“La Chimera” is the story of a young archaeologist turned grave-robber in 1980s Italy. With a band of local thieves, he robs Etruscan graves and sells wares on the international black market to art museum curators, gallerists, and private collectors. It’s also a riff on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, wherein Orpheus marries the beautiful Eurydice and then loses her to a poisonous snakebite. He descends into the Underworld and bargains with Hades, winning Eurydice’s freedom with just one condition: he cannot look back until they are both safely in the light.
There’s all kinds of imagery and callbacks to other stories I remember reading when I was a little girl. My mom gave me the “D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths” when I was six and I read it so many times front to back and back to front. It was one of my most favorite books and I’m sad I don’t know what happened to my copy, even though I probably spilled water or coffee all over it in high school.
In any event, I’m not an especially religious person, but I’ve always found myths and religion to be interesting. I was talking to someone last night about myths and how they can show us the things we value as human beings or help us to understand our collective history and psychological development across time, and while I told myself I’d try not to sound like a really pretentious geek while writing this week’s column, I feel like I’m still failing.
But ultimately, where I’m going with this, and what I loved so much about this movie wasn’t that it was shot on Super 16 or 35mm film, or the fantasy elements, but that it’s a long, layered study in grief. It’s a movie for adults and so if you want to watch it and come away with it thinking it’s just plain weird and has no meaning, you can! But you can also come away with it seeing the story of someone completely undone by their life’s losses, which is how I’ve taken it to be.
A few years ago, all I wanted to read about was grief. It was to help me move through some of my own and it helped me, but it’s a feeling I think I’ve returned to more than almost any other in my life and my work because there’s so much to be excavated within it. Grief never goes away and a large part of that is that it’s love with nowhere to go and so it endures, which is a beautiful testament to a lost life in some other ways. And I think this is what attracts me to it because it appeals to some romantic sensibility in me, but it also gives some meaning to all the complex, unwieldy feelings I still carry around that rear their heads out of the blue. And so I guess what I’m hung up on — between the movie and the myth it references and my own life — and what makes it hit for me is that it’s a story that is so universal. Every single person experiences loss. It’s timeless and therefore closes in on itself like a relic these same characters might hunt. It’s the kind of movie I wish we made more of.