ARTICLE / SHORT READ
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BY D Drayson
All the churches are empty. And still not satisfied, the evil keeps striding forward with each full moon. We've got a month, maybe two, with a scrap of God's grace.
THE NAVIGATOR: A MEDIEVAL ODYSSEY (Vincent Ward 1988) is set in a medieval Cumbrian village, fearing the Black Death. Recently, numerous critics have recommended (re)watching this film during the coronavirus outbreak. They describe this film as “underseen” and “neglected”. But what exactly makes this film a good watch in the midst of a pandemic? And what similarities does the film’s outbreak have to ours?
The Black Death was an epidemic that spread across Europe between 1346–1353, killing over 50 million people. Being in a small village, all the film’s characters have close connections to one another and fear that the plague might spread to them. They especially worry about Connor (Bruce Lyons) who has been out of town for around 80 days, searching for information about the outbreak. In the words that open this article, Connor warns the villagers that the epidemic is coming their way and they need to find a solution. Looking at this moment from a 21st century viewpoint, we are very aware that Connor might be the one to spread it, in fact by warning his friends and family he is putting them all at risk, something within our current crisis we have been told to go to great lengths to avoid.
Due to this being set in medieval times, the ideas of germs and hygiene are not considered in their plan to combat the illness, instead religion is at the forefront. The villagers know they need to give an offering to God. Griffin (Hamish McFarlane), our young protagonist and brother to Connor, has visions that often come true, visions that tell him that they need to dig underground to repair the church on the other side of the world. His visions seem sleep induced but, intriguingly, we see him look up into the stars in one of the first sequences of the film. This calls to mind news that has been circulating about the child astrologer Abhigya Anand, who claims to have predicted our current outbreak back in August and has recently predicted that it will start decreasing in May time this year. Will this young man’s insights guide us through the outbreak like Griffin? So far it only seems that he is a messenger, if he is telling the truth, that is.
To set their plan into action Griffin and Connor join with other members of their community to dig down into the earth. Once they reached their destination, we realise that they have dug their way into 20th century New Zealand. With amazement, they look out at the lights of the city, dazzled by the unfamiliarity. One villager comments that it has been a long time since he has left the village, which chimes with our current situation, his amazement predicts ours when we get to see the outside world again.
Although this film has themes that currently resonate with our present situation, it feels calm and hopeful, the calmness perhaps due to its slow pace. The film is about bringing a community together to combat the spread of an illness, hopeful that they can get through it. The film has its sad moments of realisation but overall teaches the importance of self-isolation, and not to travel place to place like Connor. We can learn from fictional history’s past mistakes, while watching a beautiful, metaphorical art film, which Mark Kermode has perfectly described as a “head spinning adventure that never grows old”.
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