Vincent Ward/ New Zealand/ 1984/ 90 mins
Available on Blu-ray Mon 11 June 2018
It is immersed in fog, water, mud, and wood. Vigil, the first film of the visionary director Vincent Ward and the first film from New Zealand to compete in Cannes, is rooted in nature and its suggestions. It is a muddy film, in which nature gives form to the vibrant texture of the screen, made of transparencies, reflections, and multiple layers of light. The sublimity of this potent nature envelops the life of a young shepherd girl – her fears, isolation, and her coming-of-age.
Lisa lives in the foggy mountains of New Zealand, where she witnesses the death of her father while they are out herding sheep. After his death, her grandfather needs a helping hand and decides to hire a bearded hunter named Ethan who is, at least at first, an unwanted presence by both Lisa and her mother Liz. The invasion of Lisa’s family life on the part of the hunter, as well as the increasing sexual tension that develops between him and her mother, will become for the young Lisa an opportunity to deal with death and the mysteries of the world, as well as womanhood.
Vigil is an intense creation, intriguing because of its visual charm, almost primordial setting and atmosphere. There are moments of sublime beauty where the misty, rainy, mysterious mountains of New Zealand appear in all their glory in contrast with the small individual, letting the raw feelings of anxiety, confusion and rage take shape through pure image and sound.
With sparse dialogue, Ward’s film is subtle and rich, a masterpiece of the unsaid. At times, though, it becomes unnecessarily morbid and slightly obvious in its exploration of the little girl’s psyche; with its strong foregrounding of the conflict with a new and invasive fatherly figure, its hints to a sexuality Lisa does not fully understand yet, her troubled relationship with her mother, and her adolescent rage towards all things.
Vigil feels on the verge of being spoiled by the anxieties it has created for itself, but still remains a work of exceptional beauty.