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Vigil (1984)

Directed by Vincent Ward

vigil (1984) -- poster

Vincent Ward has made a career from the premise that the Middle Ages never ended, that, in fact, we are living in them still, only now the superstitious peasants have cars and TV sets. His later films ("The Navigator" and "Map of the Human Heart) share a mystical and spiritual quality reinforced by strong, primal emotions. They're stark and often involve children or young adults who try to come to grips with the power of these emotions. "Vigil" (1984) has these elements and Ward's style of film making is as distinctive as soulmate Jane Campion ("The Piano"). Also, like Campion, his films can be tedious, repetitive, and prime examples of art-house "lobster" film making.

"Vigil" centers on a pubescent tomboy's (Fiona Kay) struggle into womanhood against the backdrop of the barren but beautiful landscape of New Zealand. The movie is in color but is so muted it might as well be in black and white, with the land shrouded in perpetual rain and the character's skin tones turned into bloodless steely-blue. One day, Fiona is out with her dad wrangling sheep when the old man takes a dive off a cliff. Coincidentally, this happens at the same moment that she witnesses a stranger killing a mountain goat. The two events become psychically linked for the confused young woman. The stranger acquires even more ominous power when he shows up at the farmstead carrying her dad's broken body. Later, she is both fascinated and fearful as the stranger goes about the business of bedding down her mom with the helpful advice of her granddad (it turns out that granddad wasn't a big fan of his now deceased son-in-law). The stranger takes up in a house overlooking the farmstead, spending his time sitting in front of the upstairs' window like "mother" in "Psycho." Gaunt with a mustache, beard and pointy hat, he haunts the farmstead like a mysterious wizard. At one point, he castrates a lamb and the blood squirts onto poor Fiona's face -- just one of many disturbing moments for her to deal with. Blood makes another appearance when she pours it onto a "magic" tree she has planted near the spot where dad took his nose dive, then again as she discovers that she has had her first period. Scared she goes to her granddad exclaiming, "I'm dying! I'm all bleeding on the inside!" Not impressed, her drunk granddad grumbles, "Aren't we all?" Thanks grandpa for soothing your grandchild's fears by lighting the lamp of reason and dispelling the darkness of superstition (read this with extreme sarcasm). Limited in entertainment value and a plodding character study to boot, "Vigil" is for the art bears only. -- Rating: $3.05

Tom Graney -- copyright Hollywood Outsider 1998

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