Ben Russell and Ben Rivers take an academic approach to filmmaking, which makes their collaborative effort, “A Spell To Ward Off the Darkness,” either one of the most intellectually engaging films of the year or an experience full of cramps, fidgeting, and eye-rolling, depending on who’s talking. In any case, this is a film that should, at the very least, make one appreciate the all-encompassing breadth of cinema, and, at most, provoke deeper thought of transcendental existence in correlation with nature and The Idea of Man. If words like “sublime,” “transcendence,” and “ethnography” make you recoil in frustration, what Russell and Rivers are trying to get at here won’t interest you in the slightest, and you’ll be cramping, fidgeting, and rolling your eyes. But we’re squarely camped on the other side of that fence. “A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness” doesn’t only have the greatest title of any film this year, it’s also the year’s greatest example of arthouse cinema by how it regards the medium as both boundless art and sacred house.
Three equal parts sum up the film’s whole. Before we get to them, however, a 360-degree, slow-burning pan of a forest lake imbues the screen with its mystical presence. It’s a mood setter, alright. Reflecting the trees off of the lake’s surface, capturing a moment that’s neither daylight nor darkness, and flashing images of a triangle, this prologue wastes no time in marking the film’s interests in the primitive quiet of the quotidian, an interest that will be examined through a purely cinematic scope. Kicking off the first act (though, with the poetic nature of the film, a more aptly term would be “stanza”), is a segment in an Estonian commune. The camera follows a small collective of people (some with families, others looking for love, all very much part of a single organism) as they walk, talk, build, sleep, wash, create, share, discuss, live. Of the conversations we get glimpses of some are more interesting than others, but the observational approach makes for effortlessly immersive viewing. Besides, more than one conversation is either fascinating or funny (listen for the “finger in the asshole” story) and the whole segment should have some foregone conclusions about life in a commune rightly thwarted.
Of the various folks in the first section, one stands out as an immediate outsider, a man of African decent among fair-haired, white-faced Europeans. He is, in fact, the protagonist of ‘A Spell,’ played by Brooklyn-based musician Robert A.A. Lowe (his stage name is Lichens in real life), but this is realized only after the second segment begins because the camera never signals him out in the first part. This unnamed hero doesn’t speak a word, and the second segment sees him shacking up in an abandoned cottage, somewhere in some forest that may as well be called nowhere. Has he left the commune to seek solitude? Is he the same character? One gets the impression that Rivers and Russell are toying with these narrative conventions but wholly uninterested in them. Rather, they make their contemplative cinematography take center stage in this solemn segment, whether out in the wilderness or inside the cabin, full of dispossessed material possessions. Through an act steeped in ritualism, which is too transfixing to be spoiled in this review, the third segment swoons in.
This third part takes the cake in this writer’s opinion. Our Everyman now finds himself part of a Norwegian Black Metal band, howling an indiscernible primal song, in some dimly lit basement setting. Rivers and Russell choose to film this segment in one long take, having the camera swerve around the animalistic presence of the band members, sweat beads rolling off of darkly painted faces, and towards the audience, quiet observers who appear to be meditating as much as listening. A combination of sound, camera movement, and an enigmatic aura built around the band (helped on, no doubt, by Lowe’s captivating demeanor) makes this Black Metal section feel the most spiritual and truly transcendental of all three. And that’s coming from someone who doesn’t consider himself a fan of Black Metal, so there’s clearly something else going on here.
Russell and Rivers have created a strange, vibrant thing. It’s a film very much begging to be experienced in the darkness of a theater, and is perhaps only second to Jean-Luc Godard‘s “Goodbye to Language” as the year’s art film that incorporates the need for a big screen without resorting to pretty-looking CGI. By controlling the cinematography, the editing, and the direction, Russell and Rivers have taken complete control of the kind of experience “A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness” desires to be. That it’s more interesting to think about than to sit through is a threat (looming mostly in the middle section where the pace does take a few noticeable steps back) that safely bypasses the experience if the viewer gets sucked into the film’s philosophical ponderance.
Whereas Godard plays with the idea of 3D literally, this film is one of the most three dimensional films of the year because of its parallax effect. All three segments, from the way they treat the protagonist to the way they’re filmed, take on different meanings when viewed from different angles and distances. In an industry that makes its biggest bucks from superheroes, toy lines, and teen novels, movies like ‘A Spell’ reserve the remotest of dark corners. But if you find yourself pulled towards those corners, and in the mood for a cerebral encounter of the cinematic kind, ‘A Spell’ delivers on its grand title’s promise. [B+]