Netflix Series 'Ripley' and Art-House Drama 'La Chimera' Offer Mesmerizing Views of Italy | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Netflix Series 'Ripley' and Art-House Drama 'La Chimera' Offer Mesmerizing Views of Italy


Published April 24, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Andrew Scott plays Patricia Highsmith's con man anti-hero in an unmissable new adaptation of the classic thriller. - COURTESY OF NETFLIX
  • Courtesy Of Netflix
  • Andrew Scott plays Patricia Highsmith's con man anti-hero in an unmissable new adaptation of the classic thriller.

A Vermont spring is lovely, but how would you like to take a virtual vacation? A new film and series, both gorgeously shot on location in Italy, go beyond bland touristic views of the country to explore how its storied past impinges on the present.

In these filmmakers' visions, you'll find American expatriates climbing endless stairs to rented rooms in stone seaside ramparts; young people frolicking on a beach pocked with ancient tombs beneath the blinking lights of an electrical plant; a con man moving into a breathtaking Venetian palazzo; and Isabella Rossellini holding forth in the decaying splendor of a Tuscan villa. Both of these stories have criminal protagonists, but it's impossible not to share their passion for the Italian landscape as they take perilous pathways toward rooting themselves there. Buona primavera!

You could be forgiven for assuming that the new "Ripley" series on Netflix is a cash grab. Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley books (beginning in 1955 with The Talented Mr. Ripley) have already inspired a slew of film adaptations, and it's hard to top Anthony Minghella's 1999 version of the first book. Who didn't feel for Matt Damon's awkward social climber as he tried to claw his way into the world of the beautiful people, iconically represented by Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law?

But even die-hard fans of that film recognize how fundamentally it deviates from its source. Despite featuring a non-canonically older Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott), the new "Ripley" is a truer adaptation.

Scripted and directed by Steven Zaillian (The Irishman), the eight-episode Netflix series moves at a deliberate, detail-oriented pace perfectly suited to its midcentury setting. There are no action scenes or blockbuster flourishes to obscure the machinery of a well-constructed psychological thriller whose characters are all too human. The impeccable production design and the meticulously composed black-and-white cinematography of Robert Elswit (Oscar winner for There Will Be Blood) bring postwar Italy to life in all its grubbiness and glamour.

Unlike Damon's version of the character and like Highsmith's, this Ripley is something of a sociopath — low on affect and eager to pour himself into the mold of someone else, preferably someone richer. A small-time con man, he jumps at the all-expenses-paid trip to Italy offered him by a shipping magnate who wants someone to convince his wayward heir, Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn), to return to the fold.

But once Ripley arrives in the coastal village where Dickie lounges on the beach with his writer girlfriend (Dakota Fanning), he doesn't want to leave, either. What he wants is to be Dickie — to live Dickie's golden-boy boho dream better than Dickie himself can do. Ripley clumsily yet methodically works toward that goal, eliminating every obstacle in his way.

Scott's almost schlubby Ripley is the perfect antidote to the glamorized killers of series such as "Dexter." For him, murder has such a steep learning curve that it's a comedy of errors. With forensic technology in its infancy, he's often less talented than just lucky. Ripley honed his criminal cred in Highsmith's four subsequent books about him, however — and, with any luck, the series will explore that evolution in a second season.

Ripley has a knack for going underground (Ripley Under Ground is Book 2), and so does Arthur (Josh O'Connor), the protagonist of Italian director Alice Rohrwacher's La Chimera. Celebrated at last year's Cannes Film Festival, this magic realist period piece is playing at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas through Thursday (after that, check showtimes and streaming release dates).

For a sizable early chunk of the movie, all we know about Arthur is that he's an Englishman in Italy who has just been released from prison and is prone to lyrical remembrances of a lost love. Then we learn what he was jailed for: raiding Etruscan tombs.

With his friends, a scruffy crew of merry pranksters known as tombaroli, Arthur soon returns to his favorite pursuit, using his preternatural ability to sniff out 2,000-year-old artifacts. Unlike most tomb raiders, he values his finds for more than their considerable value on the shadow market, dreaming of finding a route through a tomb to the afterlife. But a young single mother (Carol Duarte) would like to give him a reason to stay on this plane of existence.

That's about as much of a central conflict as it's possible to piece together from La Chimera, which isn't a conventionally plotted crime film or even a character study. Now and then, Rohrwacher supplies exposition through a framing device: an invisible documentarian, a café troubadour singing of Arthur's exploits. Mostly, however, the movie unfolds in a trancelike series of pastoral, delicately spring-tinted scenes that are impossible to look away from.

I couldn't tell you the purpose of half the story elements in La Chimera, yet Rohrwacher conjures a mesmerizing sense of the arcane hidden beneath the mundane, just as tombs and shrines hollow out the landscape. If you grew up in the 1970s or '80s (when the film is unobtrusively set), it might feel like an art movie you were brought to see far too young, one that still haunts your dreams even though (or because?) you fell asleep halfway through.

I won't soon forget the scenes in the abandoned railway station, or another that begins in the velvety darkness of a tomb. In La Chimera, Italy is a vast graveyard, littered with the relics of the past, that is also a vital workshop of the future. It's easy to see why Ripley decided to put down roots.

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