A collaborative journey across the spiritual plains of Northern Europe, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is arthouse cinema at is most challenging, pushing ethnographic fetishism and self-reflective analyses to the nadir of its cerebral appeal. Although divided into three distinct segments, this philosophical voyage remains relatively amorphous. The first fragment presents an English-speaking commune in a quaint Estonian idyll where the free spirits of the sixties never dissipated – with anecdotes about fingers in bums a commonplace attitude towards psychoanalysis. The second section sees us transported to the Finnish wilderness in what feels like a version of Thoreau’s Walden.
However, this philosophical meditation is soon splintered by the film’s final chapter, giving us backstage passes to a neo-pagan, death metal concert in Norway. Yet, there remains something curiously Thoreauvian about this finale, recalling the most famous passage from his transcendental manual for self-reliance; “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Opening with a seven-minute, near-silent panning shot that offers little more than a 360-degree view of a Nordic island shrouded in darkness, Rivers and Russell should be commended for giving their audience prior warning to the anti-narrative, theoretical methodology of their intensely experimental documentary.
Disconnecting sound and vision in a symbolic fashion to represent the separation of the soul from the body, this attempt to objectively understand society through personal introspection is a truly immersive experience that requires you to submerge yourself in its abstract methodology. The film’s grainy aesthetic and use of natural sound also coherently articulates the directors’ multifaceted ideas. A delirium of composite ideas, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness culminates in a lucid and spiritually sinuous example of art forged from the rhythms of everyday life, with the linear narrative structure of the film merely the stanzas of this poetic meditation on life and our soul’s endless wandering. Examining whether modernisation has resulted in our spiritual nature becoming rendered inaudible above the clatter of contemporary life, Rivers and Russell’s latest looks to unearth whether or not there is any mysticism left in the world.
Combining gorgeous scenery with the haunting sounds of nature, this free-association approach allows the audience to take what they wish from the film’s transcendent form. A timeless narrative that looks to illuminate mankind’s constant search for what distinctive qualities make them unique, this philosophical examination of identity and faith is a blank canvas for self-prescribed psychoanalyses and soul searching. It presents us with a world happy to distance itself from the ongoing destruction of nature. A profound experiment caught between twin themes of naturalism and symbolism that evokes a sense of longing and belonging, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness proves to be a beautifully rendered ideological tussle between form and substance.
This review of Ben Rivers’ latest was originally published on 12 October as part of our London Film Festival coverage.