New to Blu: Arrow Video: Vigil (1984) - Reviewed

I remember when I was a child, I would collect weird things: an unusually-shaped rock, colorful leaves, or little trinkets and charms. These things would be imbued with a special significance to me and were used as good luck charms and to ward away perceived dangers. Of course, as a adult I see this for what is was--a child's overactive imagination, but the idea that the world of the young is filled with symbolism and mysticism is a beautiful idea well worth exploring.

In Vincent Ward's film Vigil (1983) a young girl named Toss (Fiona Kay) inhabits such a dream world, specifically the period of time between childhood and adulthood. She lives on an isolated farm in the New Zealand countryside with her parents and her grandfather. An unfortunate fatal accident befalls her father and the vacuum of his absence is filled by a mysterious stranger called Ethan (Frank Whitten). Toss is torn between accepting Ethan's presence in her life and rejecting him completely.

Toss is in the twilight of her childhood and Ethan represents the inevitable changes her life is about to embark on. Ethan is simultaneously a potential father figure and a menacing force precariously striding the line between the two extremes like a tightrope walker. Like the title of the film, Toss is keeping a vigil over his actions as he interacts with the rest of her family. She is afraid of change and thus is afraid of what Ethan represents. As the days go by she participates in bizarre rituals that only have meaning to her, perhaps in an attempt to bring back her father and with him a sense of normalcy and comfort.

The cinematography is breathtaking with gorgeous verdant green vistas interspersed with foggy mountains and earthy brown vegetation. Ward seems to have an obsession with landscapes and each scene is carefully constructed around the background. At times it seems like the film is taking place in a fantasy land as opposed to New Zealand with the farm feeling as if it's the only structure that exists in this world. In a way it is the only thing that exists from Toss' perspective. Jack Brody's synth-laden music score might feel out of place or dated to some, but I found that it enhanced the dreamlike quality of the narrative. The sound design in general is fantastic with a lot of dissonant and atmospheric sounds being used to great effect.

Vigil is a very slow-paced film but it doesn't feel overly long or plodding. It was the first film from New Zealand to be accepted into the Cannes Film Festival and in a way it opened the doors for more films from the region to get international distribution. Vincent Ward's biggest claim to fame is his 1998 film What Dreams May Come which is another story that has emphasis on fantastical environments and landscapes. It's interesting to see that he was playing around with some of these ideas in Vigil, but in a more more organic and naturalistic way. Those who have the patience to stick with this languid coming-of-age story will be richly rewarded with an occasionally dark and intriguing experience.

--Michelle Kisner