Film Reviews

The Alchemy of Sulphur is Alli’s first feature created under pandemic conditions. After cancellation of the theatrical premiere of his last, The Vanishing Field (2020), he released it, and the rest of his diverse oeuvre, on YouTube. A move his cult following no doubt applauded, it seems to have renewed Alli. While his unique new film distils his strengths as a visionary, he’s curbed distracting stylistic habits.

How has the Covid factor affected Alli’s process? It hasn’t, at first glance; his defining concerns persist: the fluid relationship between waking and dreaming or conscious and unconscious states; the transformative power of sacred (as distinct from secular) ritual; the cyclic play of archetypes within human and broader nature, such as the muse, the sage, the trickster, the shaman and so on… In fact, if not for a few unobtrusive devices, Hope could be writing her story in the 1980s or ’90s (it’s far-fetched that any elite NY journal today would publish romantic fiction dense with arcane jargon and archaic diction yet light on irony). Has Alli retreated from a grim outer world to the realms of fantasy like another quirky auteur, Wes Anderson? But no: the oaks that preoccupy Phineas are dying.

Shooting a feature film on a shoestring during a pandemic no doubt takes more than usual resolve and resourcefulness. Realism. Yet Alli’s style tends towards the surreal; even, in some previous work, psychedelia. Still, 28 years of filmmaking may have mellowed him. His introspective romance benefits from a new restraint. Its more fantastic elements concern the central character, Hope. 


So how does Hope survive? Arts grant? Crowdfunding? Investments? Inheritance? Codependent or not, Uber driver Ben can’t afford to support her. But Hope doesn’t need to be believable. No mere stereotype, she’s an archetype: Tortured Genius. Despite her self-unknowing, inspiration flows through her (while she tortures Ben). Historically, it’s an archetype more often associated with men, hence the stereotypically female muse (Dante’s Beatrice, Alice Liddell, Zelda Fitzgerald etc.). Alli shrewdly reverses the genders. The muse who sweeps Hope off her feet is unorthodox performer Keith (Douglas Allen), familiar from Alli’s last film. And there’s another reversal: the character, not the muse, appears first. Keith is familiar to Hope, too: Phineas sans beard. (Kudos to Alli for maximising his brilliance.)

Archetypes are scarce in mainstream scholarship today. While Freud, like Darwin and Marx, remains a founding father of modern thought, his far subtler successor, Jung, has been shelved in history’s storeroom. Mainstream psychology takes its cues from the DSM-5 (psychiatry’s bible). So narcissism, cut loose from myth, is now a mere ‘personality disorder’, even if it afflicts the West on a scale that overshadows Covid. Yet Alli’s outwardly innocent tale of a toxic relationship, paralleled by an allegory of treatment, proposes a cure for a scourge direr than any virus. Sulphur, the principle of alchemical fire, can be applied with lime to a blighted oak, or invoked to heal a sick psyche, to rekindle love and intimacy.

The rarefied world of Alli’s characters points to a more substantial reality than the empty-image limbo the masses inhabit. Only those who’ve lost touch with or never developed an inner life (call it what you like: spirit, soul or the psyche) can be coerced into trading their birthrights for a fantasy of entitlement. Alli’s vision typically reaches beyond materiality to a timeless, unrestricted zone forever on hand to inspire those of us out of step with, or awake to more than, the zeitgeist.

- excerpted from Observor of Times
November 5, 2021. Eastern Austraila


I experience nature as continual alchemy.  Alchemy is happening inside my skin.  Digestion is Alchemy.  Humans, co-creating with nature in our gardens.  The Sun, a vast alchemical furnace, fusing Hydrogen to make Helium.  Wow! So, I’m ready for this movie.  Or am I?

Alli gently tweaks our perceptions, and we emerge, changed.  This alchemy is physical, emotional, archetypal.  For me, watching is a visceral experience.  I can taste it. Here unfolds a rhythmic, pulsating, hypnotic journey.  The price of admission is my committed imagination.  Without that, I may watch this movie, but not really see, feel or hear it. The pace is slow.  Looking for an action flick?  Sorry! The Alchemy of Sulphur is akin to slow food.  Slow Cinema takes time to prepare, has enticing aroma and color, welcomes you to contemplatively chew, enjoy, digest; be nourished and transformed. It’s sumptuously filmed: “Real Life” is black and white.  “The Story within the Story”, soft toned full color. Camera work is intimate, inviting us into the characters’ lives.  I feel like I have walked into a van Gogh painting.


Content:  Deep, Rich, Demanding.  It isn’t passive, I have to work for it. At times spoken like incantation, Intention penetrating deeply.  Watching two, three, four times, I get more.  I fall in love. Certain parts “make sense” on rewatching. It evokes spirit in nature, in a time when many people relate to nature only through machines.  “The disease lives in the roots, and feeds on the leaves.” Tree-loving Phineas, a dendrologist, says “Who am I to make a difference?”, and then does it anyway. Part of the alchemy is this:  Burning away that which is stagnant and non-essential catalyzes in us the fire to make a difference.

Sulphur burns in nature, while in homeopathic dosage, it’s used to treat inflammation.  I looked up homeopathic sulphur, and found the following associated with the Sulphur “type”:  ‘Self-centered, opinionated, critical…’  This somewhat describes the protagonist.  The psychological imbalance of the central character parallels the sickness in the dream forest which she writes about.  She alchemizes her personal transformation as she expresses her dream through writing. She oscillates between her unowned, unconscious polarities.  I can relate. Watching to the end, we partake of her evolution.

Seamas Manly, Taiwan; October 8th 2021
excerpted from "Art of Harmony"

more reviews to come...

Sulphur symbolizes the fire element, the sexual energy and vitality.
The highest aspects of this sexual fire are expressed through the
Divine Mother Kundalini, the force of purification. The toxic
aspect of this fire is called arsenic sulphur,
the ego of lust and possession.

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