Unseen Fame: How the Limelight Found This Unique Italian Director!

Upon viewing a movie by Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher, actor Josh O’Connor felt he had discovered a director who fulfilled all his cinematic desires. The film was Rohrwacher’s 2018 production, “Happy as Lazzaro.”

This movie, which tells the tale of a farmhand who strikes up a friendship with a wealthy landowner’s son and then journeys through time, had such a profound impact on O’Connor, who is primarily known for his role in “The Crown,” that he made it his goal to get in touch with Rohrwacher. This proved to be no small feat. Even though Rohrwacher is one of the most acclaimed directors in Italy at the moment, she’s not easy to reach. O’Connor even resorted to sending a letter to her hometown, Orvieto, Italy, in the hopes that it would find its way to her. It probably didn’t.

However, according to Rohrwacher, one of O’Connor’s messages did eventually arrive at her parents’ honey farm. This sparked an idea in Rohrwacher’s mind. She had been searching for a lead for her forthcoming film, “La Chimera,” which has a limited release this weekend. O’Connor’s endeavors to reach her proved fruitful. He now portrays Arthur, a British man in 1980s Italy with a unique ability to discover Etruscan tombs, which he and his team subsequently pillage and sell the stolen artifacts to an antiquities trader.

The chase of O’Connor after Rohrwacher seems fitting to her films, which weave an intoxicating blend of reality and fantasy. Rohrwacher’s work defies boundaries, blending music and mythology and incorporating elements from different periods, realms, and styles. The director describes “La Chimera,” where the character Arthur appears to be searching for something more than treasure while grieving for his dead lover, as a film about “the beyond.”

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Rohrwacher, 42, speaking via a video call with the aid of a translator, argues that while her films have a tragic core, they are also filled with life and adventure. “Not tragic as much as a lot of life there,” she says.

Despite being somewhat overlooked in the United States, Rohrwacher has won over a number of high-profile fans, including Alfonso Cuarón, the Oscar-winning director of “Roma.” He was captivated by the poetry and generosity of her semi-autobiographical 2014 film “The Wonders,” which tells the story of a young girl growing up in a family of beekeepers. Cuaron proclaims, “I believe Alice to be one of the most important filmmakers working today.”

Isabella Rossellini, who plays the mother of Arthur’s lost love in “La Chimera,” likens Rohrwacher to her father, renowned director Roberto Rossellini. “I’m moved by that. I’m moved that a generation can absorb it — and not copy it or do the same style, but absorb it and take it further,” says Rossellini.

Rohrwacher attributes her interest in film to Roberto Rossellini, among others. However, she adds, “I never would have thought that after meeting [Isabella] I would end up loving her more than her father, actually.”

Although she had an early fondness for Rossellini’s films, Rohrwacher, who studied literature and philosophy at the University of Turin, says she came to filmmaking from an “outside” perspective. She realized that cinema was a “summation” of everything she loved — painting, theater, music, human beings.

Her roots are integral to her work. Rohrwacher still resides in the Umbria region, not far from where she grew up, in the town of Castel Giorgio. Her sister Alba is an actress who has appeared in all of Rohrwacher’s features except for her debut, 2011’s “Corpo Celeste.”

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Rohrwacher’s ties to the past, both personal and of the place she still calls home, are reflected in the stories she consistently chooses to tell. “All my movies actually come from a long time ago,” she says.

The stories of the tombaroli, the grave robbers who populate “La Chimera,” were ones she knew from childhood, as were tales about the trafficking of illegal artifacts. She decided to return to these themes during the pandemic, stating, “I wanted to reflect on our collective relationship with death.”

In “La Chimera,” below the ground there are not only remnants of a long-dead civilization but also Arthur’s suppressed grief. “‘La Chimera’ is like a treasure hunt for what is gone,” writes Cuarón.

Rohrwacher also wanted to be archaeological in how she depicted the events onscreen, using older film stocks such as 16mm and 35mm while working with her regular cinematographer, Hélène Louvart. “I wanted to show the variety of formats that have characterized the history of cinema because I think that for young people that is very important,” she says.

O’Connor describes the experience of being on a Rohrwacher set as being inside the film itself. “Her world is like magical realism in itself,” he said. Most of the cast members, he says, are people from her town who are not actors.

“She works with a lot of friends,” Rossellini says. “It’s a lot of people that are living next to her farm or work with her father. There is great camaraderie.” Rossellini already views Rohrwacher as “somebody that can really mark Italian cinema.”

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Though Rohrwacher’s films frequently delve into history, she is interested in pushing her medium forward, creating the kind of pictures that stay with her audience long after the theatre lights come up.

“What I’m after is making films that are alive and that are full of life and that constantly have something new to show you, something new to tell,” she said. “And indeed you can watch them over and over again and there’s always something, some kind of life that comes to you from the movie.”

According to Cuarón, “It’s rare to meet a filmmaker that completely embodies as a person the essence of their films. And Alice is like that.”

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