a spell to ward off the darkness


Dark Optimism

Amos Lassen

We follow an unnamed character though three moments in his life. Without knowing why we first meet him at a fifteen person collective on a small island belonging to Estonia. Then we off to the wilderness of northern Finland where we see him again and finally we are at one of his concerts where he leads a black metal band in Norway. Each meeting reminds us that he is an optimist. The film is actually an enquiry into a spiritual existence while being a member of a secular world. We see

non-actors in Scandinavia as they try to find their past and their present and learn about what to expect in the future. We see a record of what they have done and how they see that a belief in transcendence is a viable outcome of living in the now. It is really hard to decide if this is fiction or nonfiction so we can assume that it is somewhere between the two. It is a “a document of experience and an experience itself, an inquiry into transcendence that sees the cinema as a site for transformation.” I am not saying that I understood everything I saw in this film but just because it has made me think, I must say that is a worthwhile experience to have. We must ask ourselves if it is possible to have a spiritual existence within an increasingly secular Western culture.

a spell1

I suppose that it is easiest to say that the film is a collaborative journey across the spiritual plains of Northern Europe. Directors Ben Rivers and Ben challenge the viewer by “pushing ethnographic fetishism and self-reflective analyses to the nadir of its cerebral appeal.” The film is divided three distinct segments; as a whole this philosophical voyage is somewhat amorphous. The first fragment presents an English-speaking commune in a quaint Estonian idyll where the free spirits of the sixties continue to this day. They feel strongly about psychoanalysis but you will have to see the film to decide if that is positive or negative.

a spell2

In the second section we are in the Finnish wilderness that feels like a version of Thoreau’s Walden. The third section is at a neo-pagan, death metal concert in Norway. There is something here akin to Thoreau. We are reminded of his 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.” This section opens with a pan shot of a dark Nordic island. If I have a complaint about and I really don’t, it would be that the directors gave us a warning before the movie by telling us indirectly that it is anti-narrative, theoretical and experimental. It would have been more interesting to discover this ourselves.

I understand that disconnecting sound and vision in a symbolic fashion represents the separation of the soul from the body and this is an attempt to objectively understand society through personal introspection. To actually do this would mean total submersion in its abstract methodology. The film is grainy to see and it uses natural sound—by this we get the directors’ multifaceted ideas. The film is a delirium of composite ideas that culminates in a lucid and spiritually sinuous example of art which “came about 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.” Then is it possible to examine our modern world as an agent for spirituality which is above the noise of daily life.

a spell3

We can take what we want from the film but I find it easiest to look at it as 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.” We have a world that distances itself from the ongoing destruction of nature.

The point of stories is that they take time. Is telling stories a way to mark temporal movement? Or is its point to make time stand still long enough to yield hidden meaning? These are some of the questions we get in the film. There is also a suggestion that the conflict between man’s industrial and social inclinations versus the supremacy of nature is something to be studied.

A BFI Release

The film follows the existential exploration of a nameless journeyman (played by real-life musician Robert A.A. Lowe). We become aware of “philosophic experimentation and sexual freedom of communal life, the meditative reflection of serene solitude amongst green overgrowth, and the euphoric expulsion of emotional indignation of strapping on a guitar and screaming” and we reach the conclusion that for some people’s survival, touching darkness is of absolute necessity.  There is a link between the three chapters. In the first, a woman tangentially speaks of rave culture and the hypnotic effects of techno-trance music.  In the darkness of dance clubs worldwide, throngs of people move in sync to the throbbing repetition of electronic beats and this is a connecting factor. In the greens of the second chapter, our traveler seems to be consciously rejecting any notion of a collaborative spirit and in the final chapter we see our everyman on stage in dissonant harmony with three other band members as they create a set of songs sonically disparate, but purposefully comparable to that of electronic trance.



“A tapestry of beautifully rendered concepts…impressively committed to its poetic design.” —Eric Kohn, Indiewire

 “Elegantly artistic and engagingly challenging… It is a film that aims to challenge and provoke and succeeds on that score.” —Mark Adams, Screen Daily

Leave a Reply