The Gene Siskel Film Center is currently running their 17th Annual European Union Film Festival through the month of March. Please see their website for screenings and showtimes.
You can look at the stunning opening sequence of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness as your road map to understanding the three sections that compose the film. Ben Rivers and Ben Russell pan through a Finnish oceanscape. Capturing an isle visage, the sun sets with the once-defined image becoming blurred and amounting to little more than a black and blue mass. A hypnotic chant enters the audio, penetrating the image. The three sequences - a defined image, a blurred mass, and the redefinition of that image - all serve to underscore A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness’ thesis on the stages of solitude and a perpetual search for communal belonging for the creative experience.
The first of three concepts details the day-to-day activities of a hippie commune. It’s a tightly knit communal environment of beautiful people, where their activities include partaking in nude sauna sessions, philosophical discourse at a beach, napping, and general crunchiness. The granola atmosphere doesn’t suggest much critical thought (many people simply wander the terrain or attempt to make sense of anal fingering). Yes, it’s that kind of place. A more remarkable physical presence amid the group is Robert A.A. Lowe, a young black man with untamed facial hair. He observes his first environ with a measure of contempt and skepticism, simply incapable of integrating within the community. The space is a defined one; so defined that breaking through the established social structure proves improbable. He takes shelter in a dome structure where we shift to the second portion of the picture.
The second portion depicts Lowe in a stage of solitude. It’s a slow evolution as the man now attempts to integrate within a nonexistent social structure - the law is nature and he must make use of his human faculties. The parallel here is that the strain of solitude measures up to the same feeling of unrest from the unchallenging creative energy of the picture’s hippie commune. In a striking image, Lowe destroys his beat-up shack and ventures off to the final and abrupt sequence set in Norway. Here, Lowe plays to a small crowd in a black metal concert. A series of long takes capture the concert as the musicians perform to an entranced crowd. It’s the closest thing to Lowe escaping the painful isolation of his previous milieus where art and community prove to be at its most challenging and complex.
Clearly, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness offers a very abstract vision of how one encounters loneliness and the need for artistic expression. The depth of the film along with the absence of narrative structure may suggest that the film is impenetrable, but rather it’s a form of cinema that very much relies on the viewer’s ability to harness the primal nature of its construction. The episodic structure alleviates any difficulty in immersing oneself into the picture - while at times jarring, the series of images that River and Russell conjure are incredibly affecting. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness feels like watching something unlike anything before where the cumulative effect signals something wholly original.