I will not see another movie this year which is more strange or more mind-blowing. I knew this even from the long opening shot of a dark landscape of water and trees either right before dawn or just after dusk. The eerily beautiful choral music of Estonian Veljo Tormis plays.
Little is explained in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. And it doesn't need to be. But if you happen to have read anything about this collaboration between experimental filmmakers Ben rivers and Ben Russell then you know it is a triptych and that the first segment shows daily life in a remote Estonian commune. It would have been hard to place without outside knowledge, as a lot of the community is American and the rest speaks English with Northern European accents. The shots are not exactly illustrative but they are not random. Conversation often tends to be about how we live together and relate to one another and the folly of making plans. Life is quiet and slow and stylish. I didn't see too much hard labour. The segment has a sense of the rhythm of life but not in an obvious way.
In a magical shot which is a little telegraphed but still arresting, the picture freezes and crackles a little and suddenly we are submerged in the lush but stark landscape of northern Finland. One individual from the commune (Robert AA Lowe, a musical artist) is alone now, rowing, fishing, hiking, exploring. He lives in what seems to be an abandoned farmhouse amongst the debris of old magazines and calendars. Stillness pervades. It is not boring. Then a conflagration occurs (our protagonist sets fire to his house presumably) and the world cracks again.
Now we are in a black metal performance. Lowe is the guitarist and sometimes vocalist. He and the three other members of the band are in corpse paint (meaning that they have whitened their faces and blackened their eyes). The music is loud and is meant to be harsh but it still contains melody and structure. The vocalizing growls and screams are genuinely disturbing. The grotesquery of the band is also hard to look at, especially the huge bald bass player whose makeup is sweating off. There are a lot of facial close ups. After ten or fifteen minutes we get a view of audience members, standing in a bar. The performance continues for about half a hour and then Lowe leaves the stage, wipes the paint from his face and walks into the Oslo night.
So why? Who is our nameless main character who never speaks? Is he no one, anyone, everyone? The randomness of the selection of episodes made me look for connections: silence and noise, solitude and community, gentleness and aggression. The segments are so specific and not really in balance with each other but each feels like it is indeed offering up some kind of magic spell to make sense of the world.
This is non-fiction but it is not a documentary. It is hard to say what it is. It might be described as about ways of being. In the widest sense, it prompts questions about how we might live and why we might make those choices. Rarely are we being told or taught anything in particular. It is a film that prompts questions in a way that is exhilarating rather than frustrating.
One more screening on October 1st at 6:45 pm at International Village. Watch the trailer here.