Filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher is committed to the tradition of Italian fairy tales and folktales
CANNES, France — For Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher, “fairy tale” is an often misunderstood concept. For many it suggests kings and queens, a light genre of fantasy.
But Rohrwacher is devoted — “obsessed,” she says — to the tradition of Italian fairy tales, which tend to feature villagers, animals and “doors between reality and magic that never close.” tumultuous and wonder-filled films.
“For me, it’s something planted in the ground,” Rohrwacher says of fairy tales. “It’s not something in the air.”
Rohrwacher’s latest mag, “La Chimera,” digs deeper. The film, which premiered Friday at the Cannes Film Festival, is about tombaroli: Italian tomb raiders who hunt ancient tombs for artifacts to sell. Josh O’Connor stars as an Englishman with a special gift for feeling where to dig, a mystical talent linked to mourning a lost love. It is said that in the graves of the dead, he searches for a door to the afterlife.
“La Chimera,” a glitzy and brooding highlight of this year’s Cannes, culminates in what Rohrwacher sees as a triptych of films about the past and its connections to the present. Her 2015 film “The Wonders” is about a young family of beekeepers, whose unusual pastoral life collides with reality. “Happy as Lazzaro,” which won best screenplay at Cannes in 2018, follows a peasant from a feudal estate who wanders into a modern city.
“What we do with our past is my big question,” Rohrwacher said in an interview in Cannes a few days before the premiere of “La Chimera.” “Normally, people either glorify the past or want to forget it. But these two directions are not my way. We are in every gesture what we were and what we will be.”
Rohrwacher grew up in the Umbria region of Italy fascinated by tombaroli. It was less the illegality that impressed Rohrwacher than the fact that they weren’t bothered by their graves being robbed.
“How can you find the authority to destroy something that is sacred?” Rohrwacher said.
In the making of “La Chimera,” Rohrwacher accompanied a team on an archaeological dig.
“When we put the light inside this place, there was a plate. He said this is the first time in 3,000 years that there have been eyes on it. It was so impressive to me,” she says. “I could never have something like that at home, with all that power.”
“La Chimera,” however, isn’t just about the gravitational pull of the past. It concerns a merry band of male tombaroli who hunt for Etruscan treasures, relics from an antiquity in which women were proudly independent. “La Chimera,” co-starring Carol Duarte, Isabella Rossellini and Rohrwacher’s sister Alba Rohrwacher, is also a work of social archeology, boring into Italy’s past and present.
“It’s very much a film about masculinity and maybe also the sadness of playing a macho role,” says Rohrwacher. “Usually in movies or books that say how honorable it is to be macho. But, actually, I think these men should be macho, but they’re not very good at being macho, and maybe a little sad to be macho. Now we’re in a different era, I think, I hope.”
By making films tied to folktales with an earthy realism, Rohrwacher bridges the great Italian traditions. It has one foot in age-old myths and one in neorealist masterpieces by Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. She calls her films “magical neorealism”.
“The visible is always connected to the invisible,” explains Rohrwacher. “Things always go together like souls in bodies.”
Rohrwacher is now preparing what she calls a major project on fairy tales. She has come up with something by completing her trilogy in the past, or maybe not. Even if she was making a film about the future, Rohrwacher says, “It would also tell us about our past.”
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