Challengers star Josh O’Connor swaps tennis for grave-robbing in new indie movie with a near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes score

Josh O'Connor in La Chimera
(Image credit: Curzon)

In La Chimera, the latest movie from film festival favorite Alice Rohrwacher, Josh O'Connor's Arthur is hanging by a thread. Fresh out of jail in a crumpled, stained, white linen suit and mourning the loss of his love, Beniamina, he returns to the Italian village he calls home and his community of fellow grave robbers. Arthur and the "tombaroli" make their living by stealing grave goods from ancient Etruscan tombs, objects that legally belong to the state and spiritually belong to those long dead, selling them on the black market via a mysterious figure known only as Spartaco. 

Despite the role he plays in this community, Arthur is an outsider. Although he speaks Italian with near fluency, he's still ostensibly English. He returns from his stint in prison alone: he's the only one of the tombaroli who was arrested. He's the only one of the group gripped by what seems to be a supernatural connection to the artifacts buried in the ground and, although he's welcomed – and even beloved, despite his brooding nature, a world away from O'Connor's recent ostentatious turn in Challengers – by the locals, we get the sense that he's not meant to be there. 

Onto the next

Josh O'Connor in La Chimera

(Image credit: Curzon)

A red thread follows Arthur everywhere: he sees it whenever he's at the edge of sleep, tangled around plants, fluttering through the open windows of a moving car. In Chinese mythology, red thread represents fate; specifically fate as it pertains to a person's one true love, and the end of Arthur's red thread is always buried in the ground. It's with Beniamina, wherever she is. When he ventures into a newly broken-into tomb, he's not just looking for priceless objects, he's looking for his late girlfriend – like the ancient civilizations who buried their dead with grave goods, Arthur looks for the souls of the dead beneath the ground. 

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More often than not, Arthur is in motion, walking, in a car, or on a train, always onto the next, and when new intimacy is on the table, he backs away at the last minute. He's not fully present in the world of the living – his livelihood is in the world of the dead and his love is, too. He's driven forward towards it, almost obsessively, motivated by what he believes is his fate. But, as one of his neighbors laments in a folk song, Arthur has "the cursed need and desire to disrupt fate”.

At times, Rohrwacher's camera switches from Arthur and co. to the inside of a tomb, inside the earth, or down to the ocean floor. This sudden shift in perspective jolts us out of Arthur and the tombaroli's narrative and reminds us that they're only a small part of a bigger story, something beyond their (or our) comprehension. On one hand, they're merely a cog in the constantly spinning wheel of the illegal grave goods trade, but they're also in the business of souls, spirits, and fate – if you believe all that, of course.

Master of your fate

La Chimera

(Image credit: Curzon)

Although Arthur is at the forefront of the film, those around him are also reckoning with their lot in life. Back in 2019, Parasite director Bong Joon-ho wrote for Sight & Sound magazine that Rohrwacher's films are "a mix of magic realism and neorealism, innocent characters butting up against corrupt behemoths", and that's exactly the case in La Chimera – the reality of life in rural '80s Italy is just as present as the mystical forces of Etruscan souls and contemporary ghosts. For the tombaroli, this reckoning means combatting poverty by turning to organized crime – and retaining the joy and mischief that's woven throughout the film.

For the women, like Italia (Carol Duarte), another outsider who Arthur befriends, it means surviving by any means necessary. Italia is a music student and live-in maid for Flora (Isabella Rossellini), Beniamina's mother, and she goes to great lengths to look after her two young children, hiding them from Flora in her employer's own home. When the kids are discovered, she goes on to start a commune of sorts for women and children in a derelict train station, and there's something powerful about the life they build for themselves in the midst of neglected public infrastructure – Italia and the other women have taken their fate into their own hands. 

Arthur, on the other hand, seems to float on the warm Italian breeze, following the red thread wherever it takes him. He doesn't find the sites of the illicit archaeological digs of his own accord, he's led to them by an unknown force, collapsing to the ground when X marks the spot. He's at the mercy of his quest to reunite with Beniamina, which he believes to be his fate – but what if it isn't? What if the living aren't meant to go searching for the dead? Unwavering in both his grief and his love for ancient treasures, Arthur doesn't even consider those questions. There's just the red thread, with Beniamina at the end of it.

La Chimera is out now in UK cinemas. For more on what else you should be watching at the cinema, be sure to check out the rest of our Big Screen Spotlight series

Entertainment Writer

I’m an Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, covering everything film and TV-related across the Total Film and SFX sections. I help bring you all the latest news and also the occasional feature too. I’ve previously written for publications like HuffPost and i-D after getting my NCTJ Diploma in Multimedia Journalism.