Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Navigator: a medieval odyssey

Vincent Ward, 1988
Australia-New Zealand
writers: Vincent Ward, Kely Lyons & Geoff Chappel

Vincent Ward’s ‘The Navigator: a medieval odyssey’ is a treat for those that like under-appreciated oddities, the kind of film that possesses a unique quality that means it often slips under the radar. Of course, technological advances now means that nearly everything is retrieved and now available (the years of seeking out rare VHSs of fondly remembered shows and films are long gone), but ‘The Navigator’ is still a bit of a lost gem, despite having won eleven awards at the time. Ward offers a mixture of black-and-white 14th century scenario tunneling into a colour urban 20th Century New Zealand by way of time travel, story-telling, visions, elliptical symbolism and editing. In a medieval town, young Griffin keeps having visions as he waits for his brother Connor to return from an outside world devastated by the Black Death. When Connor returns with pronouncements of doom, it would seem that only a religious quest to mount a spire  on the tallest church in Christendom will save the village. 

The black-and-white medieval sections are reminiscent of silent cinema and Andrei Tarkovsky (ref. ‘Andrei Rublev’), with people much like silhouettes against the snowbound backdrops. The modern world comes in bursts of nocturnally shadowed colour where motorways are near impassable death-traps, submarines come like aquatic behemoths, diggers and cranes are monsters and displays of television sets must seem like boxes of visions to eyes from the Dark Ages. Ward does a commendable job of making the 20th Century uncanny from the perspective of these time-travellers, just as he respects their limited understanding without condescension. 

It’s often beautiful and jaw-dropping in its imagery and audaciousness, using imagery rather than effects to conjure the incredible. It’s built on the themes of the loyalty of familial and community bonds, on a faith that makes it easy to accept the impossible. The science-fiction of time travel is more rooted in the power of storytelling and imagination, of folk stories and visions which are constantly evoked by Davood A Tabrizi’s haunting score. Its ambition makes any weaknesses or budgetary limitations secondary.

‘The Navigator: a medieval odyssey’ covers a breadth of aesthetic techniques and ideas and its final accomplishment of being genuinely moving means it fills a high quota of accomplishments. It strides the pools of fantasy and arthouse effortlessly. Unique and timeless.

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