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DIRECTED BY: Steve Balderson
FEATURING: Xander Berkeley, Sarah Clarke, Mink Stole
PLOT: Despite his wife having just passed away, Oliver agrees to create an art installation piece.
COMMENTS: There is a moment of raw delight near the end of Alchemy of the Spirit, when Oliver is explaining his artistic ambitions and process to his latest buyer, Mrs. Sonnenberg. Alex, his agent, stands behind the wealthy patron, fearing the worst. Oliver has been rambling for some time as he attempts to delay showing the new piece—and Alex seems to have been unable to breathe. Finally shown the work, Sonnenberg quietly remarks, “Oliver, it’s perfect.” And Alex’s gasp of relief punctures the scene.
As a general rule, it is poor form to reveal the ending. But the ending in Alchemy of the Spirit is incidental. And, as is so often the way in real life, the events leading up to Alex’s stertorous outburst, are what make Steve Balderson’s film the quiet, but satisfying, narrative artwork that it is. In fact, the film’s beginning is as much a punch as anything else in the film.
Oliver (Xander Berkely) wakes one morning to find that his wife, Heather (Sarah Clarke), has passed away. He cannot believe it; he cries at the tragedy; he refuses to accept it. And then he does something unlikely before laying his deceased wife in an ice-filled tub: he crafts a death mask for her. Over the coming days while she unhurriedly decomposes, Oliver works on a new project his agent agreed to for him. While working, he has long conversations with his wife.
The gauzy lens work, the orchestral score—brought right up in the sound mix—and the occasionally aphoristic lines all manage to gel beautifully, as if their clunky nature becomes softened, and functional. This is a sweet movie; a bittersweet chronicling of one man’s grieving process through art. It is always compelling, and spiked with enough odd mundanity (the plumbers’ visit becomes hilarious in its thriller-like execution, and Mink Stole’s performance as Oliver’s agent is a delight) to make what could have been a saccharine, melodramatic bit of blech into something endearing. Alchemy of the Spirit, like life, comes and goes in a flash; and like life, it’s worth taking a closer look at.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…there’s nothing traditional about Balderson’s Alchemy of the Spirit. From Xander Berkeley’s beautiful performance to the magical realism that floods every frame and the script itself. It’s a very weird and atypical depiction of grief. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t understandable.”–Federico Furzan, Movie-Blogger.com (contemporaneous)