Artist Oliver Black (Xander Berkeley) wakes to discover his wife Evelyn (Sarah Clarke) has died in their bed overnight. Brimming with magical realism, we enter a world in which the misconceptions of our belief in a solid reality are revealed. Space and time bend in a way to challenge the audience with what is real, what is illusion, and what is beyond…This peaceful and hypnotic quiet is interrupted by the outside world and the threat of everyday, common reality, thanks to Oliver’s art dealer (Mink Stole).
Steve Balderson‘s films are rather distinctive. Their lush visual impact sticks in your brain. His newest film, Alchemy of the Spirit, is no exception. Possessing a dreamy, even otherworldly look, Balderson makes the mundane glow. The quiet becomes claustrophobic. As the film begins, the sound editing alongside the score creates an unsettling feeling. The audience resides inside the manic mind of a grieving man. At 23 mins and 10 seconds into the film, we get a shot that elicits every emotion tied to this film. The symmetry, artistic and of two souls as one, is breathtaking. You will not miss it. There is a Picasso-esque madness to it. Balderson thought about its impact as it is the current key art for the film. Very smart. That sense of panic eases once introduced to a languid score of Debussy, Bach, and other classical beauty. While the darkness lies just under the surface, the screenplay’s nuances extend beyond what I expected from the first third of the film.
Sarah Clarke, as Evelyn, is chilling and beautiful. Her voice, combined with soul-piercing imagery, is haunting. The grounded chemistry between Clarke and Xander Berkeley plays with a familiarity of real-life lovers, which makes sense as the two actors have been married since 2002. Berkeley, who I recently lauded in The Dark and The Wicked, is similarly spectacular here. He’s an actor that can capture emotion with a glance. Balderson’s screenplay allows him to live in grief in an extraordinarily imaginative way. It’s a stunning performance. Not only that, but the actual art in the film is Berkeley’s. It will wow you.
The idea of “the proper way to grieve” is front and center. How do we honor the dead? How do we mark the life we have? Oliver creates a literal death mask both as a means to stop time and keep Evelyn’s spirit alive. We get to explore the meaning of life through memory. The film easily could have been a stage play. It is dripping with theatricality. Alchemy of the Spirit is a genre-bending ode to art and romance. It’s a visual love poem.