In less than 10 years, Alice Rohrwacher has carved out a formidable reputation for herself, notably by gatecrashing the boys’ club that is traditionally the Cannes competition, and the fact that she did so in 2014 with only her second film, The Wonders, is further proof of a distinctive talent. One competition slot doesn’t guarantee another, yet Rohrwacher was back in 2018 with the follow-up, Happy as Lazzaro. Both films won prizes — Grand Prix and Best Screenplay, respectively — which means that expectations are high for the Oscar-nominated 41-year-old Italian, whose new film, La chimera, makes it three in a row.
DEADLINE: What can you reveal to us about La chimera?
ALICE ROHRWACHER: Nothing! [Laughs] It’s very difficult to talk about the film when you have not seen it, but I can tell you that it’s the story of a group of grave robbers. We call them tombaroli in Italy, and they do it because some of the world’s most precious artifacts are hidden in Etruscan tombs. The main character is a British archeologist, played by Josh O’Connor, and the title, La chimera, represents what we aim for and can never reach. For some, a chimera is easy money. For other people, it’s a secret goal that cannot be attained so easily.
DEADLINE: Who else do you have starring in the movie?
ROHRWACHER: There’s a very important character played by Isabella Rossellini, an old lady living with the memory of her daughter. And then there’s a young singing student, played by Carol Duarte, a Brazilian actress who learned Italian to play the role, and there’s also a small part played by my sister Alba. But it’s an ensemble with many different roles that are played by local people. Some of them are non-professional actors. Mainly my neighbors [laughs].
DEADLINE: What inspired the story?
ROHRWACHER: Accounts of the archeological treasures that were illegally found at night in the woods, under the ground, fed my childhood. It’s somehow an epic narrative that is part of the territory I was born in and grew up in, and it’s part of the epic narrative of Italy, as with all the other countries that had a strong past civilization. But I do remember that in the ’80s, while I was growing up, men would go out on a treasure hunt at night to try and steal any artifacts that they could find. It was almost a stereotype. However, it fascinated me very much, and, indeed, I do think that my work as a filmmaker is somehow connected to archeology. My writing process has a connection with the process of the archeological in terms of findings and practice, so I thought it was a good idea to combine these two universes: filmmaking and archeology.
DEADLINE: Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?
ROHRWACHER: Probably because there were stories that I could not write, but I could see.
DEADLINE: Childhood seems to be a very big influence on your work, your own childhood in particular.
ROHRWACHER: I don’t know if my childhood is such a big influence on my filmmaking. I know that in the territory I grew up in I was a foreigner, since my father — who’s German — is a foreigner. I somehow had the ability to see that land, that place, with different eyes than the people around me, who were somehow more used to the landscape and the place. It’s certainly a source of inspiration for my imagination and the clarity of my gaze on the marvels surrounding me. But I would never tell a story related to my childhood if I were not sure that it tells a story of human beings in general.
DEADLINE: You were very fortunate in that your very first film, Corpo celeste premiered at Cannes in 2011. What was your experience there, and were you surprised to get into Directors’ Fortnight?
ROHRWACHER: I remember that it was a wonderful experience. It was all very new for me, and it impressed me so much. I hadn’t even made a short film before that, and seeing my film selected in Cannes was already beyond my imagination. But the experience of sharing that screening with an audience… It was just so emotional for me. I’ll never forget it.
DEADLINE: It’s a very confident film. Your style has grown since then, but it’s still a very good debut. How do you feel about it now?
ROHRWACHER: I don’t know if it was a matter of confidence or of feeling irresponsible and unaware. I felt a great deal of freedom, and I still look for that freedom. The freedom was in my angle and perspective on the world that I wanted to attract viewers into. That was mainly my goal: not so much telling a story but opening a door onto a world that I wanted people to go into. That’s why I’m talking about instinct and irresponsibility. I remember the first day I went on set, I’d never seen a crew in my life before. I didn’t know who did what, but I felt such a force and a beauty in collaborating in this team effort to make the film. The collective aspect of filmmaking gave me strength, and really, I admire the beauty of that effort.
DEADLINE: You hit your groove with your second film, The Wonders. Critics use the term ‘magic realism’ a lot to describe it. Were you aware of that emerging style, and did you consciously develop it to get where you are today?
ROHRWACHER: Yes. I think that it’s important not so much to change but to evolve. And this is the reason why I like to continue working with the same collaborators because it’s as if I were saying to them, “OK, we got here. Now let’s continue the journey together. Let’s grow together in this world we wish to share and portray.” And, differently from Corpo celeste, The Wonders was a story that was much closer to home than the first film, and therefore it was more difficult in a way because I felt a shyness that I did not feel in my first film. But I like challenges. I think that these difficult things can help you grow and mature.
As for the definition of magic realism, I’ve read it very often myself, but it was never my intention nor my will. My approach is in talking about reality the way I see it, and I try to grasp the magic that I believe is in reality. So, it’s my gaze that sees the enchantment and the wonders in looking around myself. I don’t add it on in a sort of extra dosage of it.
DEADLINE: Your next film, Happy as Lazzaro, had the best reviews you’ve had so far and put you into the main Competition for the first time. How important is that film to you?
ROHRWACHER: I think it’s the one I have the most serene relationship with, in a way, because I feel I did my homework with that film. It’s a film that I wanted to be that way, and my sensation was of being completely fulfilled in making it. It’s like when Michelangelo said, “I see the statue in the block of marble. It’s already there — I just must carve it out.” That’s what I feel about Happy as Lazzaro. I’m not comparing myself to Michelangelo [laughs]. I’m just saying that the most beautiful feeling for a filmmaker is when you feel that you need to give life to a film, and it’s right there in front of you. Of course, I see its faults, but it’s like being in a relationship with another human being — you love their faults and their failures as well.
DEADLINE: La chimera brings you back in Competition. Do you feel any pressure? There are famously very few women competing every year…
ROHRWACHER: Yeah, indeed. The fact itself of being in the Official Selection of the festival is already incredible because it means that I got what I wanted, in a way. So, I’m very grateful to the selection committee that chose my film. And, yes, the Competition adds some pressure, but the most difficult step is to be selected and to have the opportunity of presenting your film at the Cannes Film Festival in front of the Cannes Film Festival audience. Films have a strange life in a big festival. They can shine immediately and then disappear a split second after, or they can be silent and shine later on. Of course, different epochs, different times react to a film in different ways, and awards normally reflect the moment. But the life of a film can be absolutely unexpected after it’s been presented to an audience.
DEADLINE: Speaking of awards, you had the experience of the Oscars this year with your short film Le pupille. What was that like for you?
ROHRWACHER: It was very funny, in a way, being able to attend the ceremony with Alfonso Cuarón. There are many things that I didn’t know and I could never have imagined. Amongst which, what was least expected was that there was a very familial atmosphere at the ceremony. It was just extraordinary for a short film — which tells the story of 17 little girls in an orphanage in Italy, from the pen of [author] Elsa Morante — to be selected for the Academy Awards.
DEADLINE: Why did you choose to make a short film at this point in your career? You said earlier that you hadn’t even made one before you made your first movie.
ROHRWACHER: It was actually a long short film because it nearly lasted 40 minutes. It was Alfonso Cuarón that asked me to make a Christmas film of the runtime that I wished, and this is one of the very positive aspects of platforms — the freedom of runtime. If you think about it, when cinematography was invented, films were short: one minute, 15 minutes, up to 45 minutes for [Jean Vigo’s 1933 featurette] Zéro de conduite, and nowadays, normally, a feature film lasts two hours. It was the complete freedom that I most appreciated, and I can only be very thankful to Alfonso for this experience. I don’t know if I’ll make another one in the future. If I’m given the opportunity, why not?
DEADLINE: Final question. This is your fourth time in Cannes with a movie. What is it about the film festival that you look forward to the most?
ROHRWACHER: It’s very difficult to describe. You’ll never get used to the emotions that you feel. It’s a mixture of fear, happiness, terror, joy, shame, embarrassment, pride — all of these together when it’s the first official screening in Cannes. It is really very, very difficult to describe, but I’m looking forward to it, and I cherish the emotions.