Alice Rohrwacher debuts her latest enchantment, 'La Chimera,' at the Cannes Film Festival

CANNES, France (AP) — To the Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher, “fairy tale” is an often misunderstood concept. For many, it suggests kings and queens, a light kind of fantasy.

But Rohrwacher is devoted to — “obsessed with” she says — the tradition of Italian fairy and folk tales, which tend to feature peasants, animals and “doors between reality and magic that never close." They have deeply informed and enriched Rohrwacher's lyrical, ramshackle and wonder-filled films.

“For me, it’s something planted in the ground," says Rohrwacher says of fairy tales. “It’s not something in the air.”

Rohrwacher's latest enchantment, “La Chimera,” digs deeper. The film, which premiered Friday at the Cannes Film Festival, is about the tombaroli: Italian tomb raiders who hunt ancient graves to find artifacts to sell. Josh O'Connor stars as an Englishman with a special gift for sensing where to dig, a mystical talent connected with mourning for a lost love. It's said that in the tombs of the dead, he's seeking a door to the afterlife.

“La Chimera,” a radiant and melancholy highlight of this year's Cannes, concludes what Rohrwacher considers a triptych of films about the past and its connections to today. Her 2015 film “The Wonders” is about a young family of beekeepers whose threadbare pastoral life collides with reality television. “Happy as Lazzaro,” which won best screenplay at Cannes in 2018, follows a farmhand from a feudal-run 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 “La Chimera” premiere. “Normally, people either glorify the past or want to forget about it. But these two directions are not my path. We are in every gesture what we were and what we will be.”

Rohrwacher grew up in the Umbria region of Italy fascinated by the tombaroli. It was less the illegality that impressed Rohrwacher than that they weren't disturbed by their grave robbing.

“How can you find the authority to destroy something that is sacred?” said Rohrwacher.

In making “La Chimera,” Rohrwacher accompanied a group on an archeological 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 are eyes on this. That was so impressive to me,” she says. “I could never have at home something like this, with all this power.”

“La Chimera,” though, isn't just about the gravitational pull of the past. It concerns a merry band of male tombaroli in pursuit of Etruscan treasures, relics from an ancient time in which women were proudly independent. “La Chimera,” which co-stars Carol Duarte, Isabella Rossellini and Rohrwacher's sister, Alba Rohrwacher, is a work of social archeology, too, boring into Italian machismo past and present.

“It’s a lot a movie about masculinity and maybe also the sadness of having to play a role of macho,” Rohrwacher says. “Normally in the movies or books that tell how honorable it is to be macho. But, in fact, I think these men have to be macho but they’re not very good at being macho and maybe a little bit sad to be macho. Now we are in a different era, I think, I hope.”

In making films tethered to folktales with an earthy realism, Rohrwacher is herself bridging grand Italian traditions. She has one foot in centuries-old fables and one in neo-realistic masterworks of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. She calls her films “magical neo-realism.”

“The visible is always connected to the invisible,” Rohrwacher explains. “Things go always together like souls inside the bodies.”

Rohrwacher is now preparing what she calls a large work on fairy tales. She has concluded something in finishing her trilogy on the past, or maybe not. Even if she made a film about the future, Rohrwacher says, “It would also tell us also about our past.”


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: