Vigil AKA First Blood/Last Rites (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (13th June 2018).
The Film

Vigil (Vincent Ward, 1983)

On a remote New Zealand farm, Justin (Gordon Shields) and his daughter Lisa, nicknamed ‘Toss’ (Fiona Kay), are tending to their sheep one day when Justin, attempting to rescue a stranded sheep, falls to his death. Justin’s body is carried back to the farm by a poacher, Ethan (Frank Whitten), who quickly takes up a position as a labourer on the farm at the behest of Lisa’s grandfather Birdie (Bill Kerr).

At first, Lisa’s mother Lizzie is cautious of Ethan and his intentions, especially towards Lisa. Meanwhile, Ethan proves himself to be an idle worker, preferring instead to spend his time thinking about hunting deer than tending to the animals. Birdie enlists Ethan in some of his more ambitious schemes, including a plan to break through the rock surface into a cavern eighty feet below the ground in order to provide drainage for the farmland. The pair also build a strange contraption intended to harness the wind, the completion of which results in a brief period of celebration which comes to an abrupt end when the contraption breaks.

Soon Lizzie finds herself drawn to Ethan’s coarse charms, and they become lovers. Lisa is disturbed by this, though the potential for this shattered family to be drawn back together is provided when Ethan displays a kindness towards Lisa and the two become friends. However, this truce proves itself to be all too brief.

Vigil was one of a number of films made during the late 1970s and early 1980s that raised to profile of New Zealand cinema, following Roger Donaldson’s pictures Sleeping Dogs (1977) and Smash Palace (1981), in particular. (Arrow have released both of the Donaldson films on Blu-ray recently; we have reviewed these here and here.) Vigil became the first film made in New Zealand to be screened in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film was the feature debut of its director, Vincent Ward, who would go on to direct The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988), a picture which achieved an even greater level of international exposure. Ward flirted with Hollywood for a number of years during the 1990s and 2000s, scripting a version of what became Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1990) before directing Map of the Human Heart (1993) and the Richard Matheson adaptation What Dreams May Come in 1998. His most high profile picture was perhaps The Last Samurai, which was based on a story by Ward and produced by him.

With its obtuse narrative and emphasis on aesthetics, Vigil is often credited as proving to the New Zealand Film Commission, and other funding bodies within the country, the ‘viability of an “art-house style”’ (Goodnow, 2010: 70). The story takes place in a strange, almost abstract location, the landscape itself seeming barren and alien, almost like the landscape in Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The characters are dwarfed by it, often isolated within very painterly compositions which seem to freeze them in time. Dialogue is minimalistic; the four characters are isolated from one another and from the outside world. The mise-en-scène is carefully controlled; the temporal setting of the narrative is unclear.

The opening sequence of the film makes it clear how much Lisa loves her father: as the film begins, we see her watching him through the window of the family home before rushing to Justin under the cold gaze of her mother. Together the pair go ‘to the tops’, but Lisa is separated from her father and watches him fall to death whilst seemingly rescuing a sheep. Spending time with her father, Lisa sees him as her primary role model, much to the chagrin of her mother. Lisa’s father’s death is the catalyst for change, however. After Justin dies, Lizzie tries to teach Lisa ballet and tells her that she must grow her hair long. For her part, teetering between childhood and adolescence, Lisa sees the adult world as mysterious and incomprehensible. In one scene, Lisa confronts Ethan, staring him down. Ethan responds by killing a lamb in front of her, the blood spattering across her face. Lisa returns to the family home and watches her mother applying makeup in a mirror. Retreating to another room, Lisa stands in front of the mirror and, mimicking her mother, smears the lamb’s blood across her face.

Like many of Ward’s other films, Vigil is about a clash of cultures and the notion of the ‘outsider’. Despite her position on the farm as Justin’s wife, Lisa’s mother Lizzie is an outsider to the community, having been transplanted to the farm after being raised in the city. She tries to train Lisa to ballet dance and present herself in a more stereotypically feminine manner, but Lisa is disinterested in this: she is her father’s daughter. Meanwhile, the intruder into their lives, Ethan, is a local man, coarse in manner, who forms an existence as a poacher. His attitude is at odds with that of the family: Birdie takes Ethan on because he reasons that after the death of Justin, they will need an extra pair of hands to help run the farm. However, Ethan proves himself to be a slovenly and easily distracted labourer, more interested in daydreaming about hunting deer or in encouraging Birdie’s more eccentric schemes. He is also spiritually at odds with Lisa, who in the grip of a religious mania comes to see him as a ‘devil’s angel’.

After her father’s funeral, Lisa takes an interest in God, interpreting the priest’s sermon literally. She asks Birdie where the ‘valleys of shadow and death are’. An inarticulate man, Birdie simply tells her that ‘It’s just priest talk [….] They make simple things complicated so as to keep themselves in work’. Lisa’s growing interest in God and the spirit is offset by Ethan’s almost paganistic association with nature. Partway through the film, Birdie and Ethan talk about nature, Birdie asking Ethan what the hawk symbolises for him. Ethan responds by saying that he admires the hawk’s ability to use the sun to descend upon its prey without alerting them. Birdie says that Justin saw hawks just as ‘something bigger and faster than he was’. Towards the end of the picture, Lisa and Ethan sit down and have a conversation, a despairing Lisa declaring ‘God doesn’t care, does he?’ In response, Ethan says, ‘Does the sky care? Do the hills care?’ His question provokes a nihilistic response in Lisa: ‘If God doesn’t care, I don’t either’, she rages.



Video

Taking up just over 24Gb of space on the Blu-ray disc, this 1080p presentation of Vigil utilises the AVC codec. The film is presented uncut, with a running time of 89:51 mins.

The film certainly wasn’t shot in a naturalistic way. Katherine Goodnow has described Vigil as being ‘shot in unrelentingly cool, dark colours with an occasional splash of red’ (Goodnow, op cit.: 71). In its exterior sequences, the photography makes much use of telephoto lenses which isolate the characters. In the interior sequences, the photography uses focal lengths which make these spaces seem cramped and crowded.

Vigil was shot on 16mm. The source of this HD presentation is unclear, but at a guess, owing to the tightness of the grain, it would seem to be taken from a source closer to the negative than a 35mm blow-up print or perhaps even an interpositive. The encode to disc seems solid enough: certainly, there’s a scene early in the film in which ‘the tops’ is enshrouded by thick fog; this scene plays out well enough in this Blu-ray presentation. Contrast levels are pleasing. Midtones are strong and defined, and there’s some subtle gradation in the shadows. The film makes much use of chiaroscuro lighting in its interior scenes, and this material possesses depth and dimensionality in this presentation. (See the large screengrabs at the bottom of this review, which can be enlarged by clicking on them.) The film’s palette makes much use of earthy browns and greens. Colours are consistent. In some scenes, oranges and blues/greens seem to have the slight appearance of having been boosted digitally (for example, see the large grab, below, of the shot of Lisa in the barren field with the ruined car in the top right hand corner of the frame; there are some curiously blue sheep too), though to be fair the film’s photography isn’t naturalistic and this may be a product of the stocks used to shoot the picture. The level of detail is very good throughout, fine detail being present in closeups.



Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 1.0 track. This has good range. Dialogue can be muffled at times, but this is a product of the original sound recordings and is often an intentional part of the sound design. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read and accurate in transcribing the dialogue.

Extras

The disc includes:
- ‘Nick Roddick on Vigil’ (13:22). Film critic Nick Roddick is interviewed about Vigil. Roddick reflects on the picture’s place in the history of New Zealand cinema. He discusses the reasons why New Zealand cinema became so prominent during the 1980s. Roddick emphasises Ward’s position as an artist and discusses the documentary Ward made before Vigil, In Spring One Plants Alone (1980).

- ‘Country Calendar’ (14:18). Recorded for broadcast on New Zealand television programme Country Calendar in 1983, this short report on the production of Vigil features some fascinating behind the scenes footage.

- ‘NZ Cinema: The Past Decade’ (7:30). Excerpted from the 1987 documentary NZ Cinema: The Past Decade, this piece sees Vincent Ward talking about Vigil and his approach to filmmaking.

- Trailer

Overall

Essentially a film about Lisa’s journey from childhood to adulthood, Vigil is a strange, elemental picture. A haunting,visually striking film, it has much in common with European ‘art’ cinema. Arrow’s Blu-ray release of the film contains a pleasing presentation of the main feature alongside some good contextual material. Their home video release of this unique film, which has been absent from any kind of distribution in the UK for about twenty years, is very welcome.

References:
Goodnow, Katherine J, 2010: Kristeva in Focus: From Theory to Film Analysis. Oxford: Berghahn Books


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