‘Judge ye,’ Ezra Pound says of a character in one of his poems, ‘Have I dug him up again?’ One answer is obviously yes. In ‘Sestina: Altaforte’, the old troubadour Bertran de Born – with his ‘whoreson dogs’ and ‘hell blot black’ – is as alive as any written character can be, and more alive than many of Pound’s actual contemporaries. But what about some of the parallel or related questions? When do we dig up the dead, and how? Can they be robbed? What if their deadness is final, and that’s all we need to know, or can know?

The characters in Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera have considerable investments in these questions but all have very different takes. Some of them recognise superstition when they see it and understand how you can turn its relics into money. Others refuse to believe in natural death. A review of the movie tells me that we hear a passage from Monteverdi’s opera Orpheus in the soundtrack. This is not a clue if we don’t recognise the music, as I didn’t; but even so it’s hard to keep Orpheus and Eurydice out of your thoughts as you watch the film. What if he was always going to fail to bring her back from the dead, even if he hadn’t turned around?

The movie opens with a sequence showing an angry man on a train. We don’t know why he is angry – or why, when the train stops at a small Italian town, he gets off but doesn’t want to talk to the friend who is waiting for him. The friend is very jolly, like a cartoon of amiability, and wants to drive the man to a party. The man reluctantly accepts the lift but ducks out of the celebration, and climbs a very steep hill to his home, a sort of lean-to that looks as if it will fall 0ff the cliff at any moment. Nothing goes right for him: he can’t even light a cigarette without lighting the stove. But then he smokes and settles down. And goes to visit a very different friend.

There are fragments of an explanation in these scenes, and the dialogue in the visit allows us to put them together. The man’s name is Arthur, and he has just been released from prison. Home is not home to him anymore, or perhaps never was. He is English, and some people speak a little English when they see him. His Italian sounds good but that doesn’t save him from repeated corrections of small mistakes. He has gone to see Flora, an elderly woman in a wheelchair, who turns out to be the mother of his missing girlfriend, Beniamina. The news is that she is still missing.

The man who so eagerly met Arthur at the station is Pirro (Vincenzo Nemolato). Arthur is played by Josh O’Connor, Flora by Isabella Rossellini. All these performances, and several others in the film, are remarkable, perfectly tuned to a touch of exaggeration, as befits a chimerical world. In this vein a recurring image that Rohrwacher turns to is that of persons suddenly, and for no apparent reason, filmed upside down. When they fall, they fall up. It’s interesting to learn that Rohrwacher, writer and director of the work, rewrote her script after she had cast the 33-year-old O’Connor. She said she had shifted away from the topic of a person in ‘the sunset of his life’.

But where to? Why would the younger person specialise in death, so to speak? The place where these people live is not exactly haunted but it is old, full of Etruscan ruins. Pirro and a group of local men are tomb-raiders, digging for treasures to sell. Arthur is very helpful in this venture because he has a special gift: he can divine hollow spaces underground the way others can divine water or gold. The film’s Italian phrase for this is ‘feeling the void’ (‘sentire il vuoto’), which sounds quite a bit more metaphysical than commercial. Arthur holds the appropriate forked twig as he walks over the unmarked earth. Then he stops, says this is it, and the men dig away. They come back with pots, plates, figurines, whatever archaeological scraps are there. Minor stuff, mostly – but it will sell, and these are not big-time thieves.

They are made painfully aware of this in the film’s big set-piece. The location is a seaside open-air nightclub. Lots of singing and dancing, everyone joins in. Pirro, Arthur and the gang decide to do a little prospecting while they are there and find a whole elaborate grave, complete with skeletons and murals and a life-size statue of a woman resembling Venus. To Arthur’s distress, Pirro lops the head off the statue so that they can take part of the treasure above ground right away. Meanwhile it seems that the police have shown up. The raiders run off (with the head) but the newcomers, it turns out, are not the police but a rival, more sophisticated, better-funded band of robbers. They return another day to load the contents of the grave onto a truck.

The cut to a tourist ship at sea is surprising, and for a moment we don’t know where this story is going. On board, a well-dressed woman (played by Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister) is holding an auction with a rich-looking audience. Her name is Spartaco, and she has been buying some of the local gang’s finds. Now she owns the headless statue and much more. Arthur and the gang are in the room too, and we expect violence. Instead Spartaco asks Arthur to say something about the head, which he holds in his hands. He steps out onto the deck for a little communion with himself and the dead, and suddenly decides to break with the whole project. ‘You’re not meant for human eyes,’ Arthur says to the head, and throws it into the sea. In an extended, improbable shot we watch it floating down through the water and disturbing the sand at the bottom.

If until this moment Arthur has been looking for the ancient gifts of the dead to the living, without any concern for what the living may do with them, he now moves towards a religious respect for privacy – of the dead or anyone else. This could be because he thinks that he and Flora are the only people who have any right to worry about whether Beniamina is dead or not. It could also be the beginning of his acceptance that she is. Arthur may have been moved in this direction by Italia (Carol Duarte), Flora’s servant, who is shocked when she learns of the grave-robbing – not by the theft or the business impulse but by the unconcerned invasion of a sacred place.

Arthur loses himself at this point. He isn’t in prison and he isn’t free. Time passes and he wanders from place to place, looking scruffier and scruffier. At last he comes back to the little town and finds that Italia and some other women have set up a commune in a disused railway station – they are adopting the liberation implied by a myth that Etruscan women ruled, and Etruscan men did as they were told. Arthur is invited to stay and almost does. At least he is composed now, and cleaned up, and this would be a good place to end the movie, as Rohrwacher obviously knows. But she is not going to do that. One more tomb awaits Arthur, and you need to see the movie to learn what happens there. Actually, even when you’ve seen it you won’t be quite sure, because several fascinating interpretations of the events are possible. Judge ye. What would Orpheus do in this situation?

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