Review: Faber Navalis

Gabriele de Seta

Faber Navalis is a movie about the embodied craftiness of boat-making. In the mobile camera-eye of Maurizio Borriello, the film-maker is also the faber navalis or ‘maker of ships’, at the same time director and directed, both silent artisan and self-aware documentarist. Condensed in thirty minutes of carefully spliced shots and intimate sounds is a compressed timeline of manual labor, wood and image treated as raw materials with symmetrical care. Just like each of the poetically framed scenes composing this documentary, an individual plank of wood is measured, marked, cut, contoured, sanded, polished, bent, transported and fixed into place. After half an hour of entrancing woodwork, as the creaking plank is being hammered into its matching gap on a side of the ship, one can imagine Borriello’s parallel work on the multitrack interface of a video-editing software, each audio and video track a painstakingly but instinctively shaped plank composing the waterproof hull of this documentary.

Trained as an anthropologist and working on a marine ethnography in post-Tsunami Indonesia, Maurizio Borriello resorted to learn the art of boatbuilding in order to understand the transmission of the non-verbal repertoires of knowledge involved in this artisanal practice. Years later, while working on the restoration of a Norwegian wooden ship recognized as historical maritime treasure, Borriello decides to add one more tool to his practice: a video camera. This camera follows the story of a single wooden plank, from the dismantling of a old and rotten ship hull to the gradual assembling of a new vessel. The director-artisan orchestrates his documentary performance through fixed lens angles, sometimes perched on the corners of his deserted workshop, other times mounted on moving cranes, trolley carts, circular saws or even the plank itself, challenging the roles of objects and subjects, and distributing agency through embodied perspectives. What is it like to be a piece of wood on its journey from tree to boat?

Sound is integral to the experience of Faber Navalis, and offers a counterpoint to the visual movement between detailed close-ups, dynamic perspectival shots and wider angles. Borriello chooses to mix his audio according to a crisp and focused directional aesthetic – while the artisan-director is alone and doesn’t say a word throughout the movie, everything sounds: the wood itself, human hands, tools and machinery, the workshop rooms through reverb and resonances. While the camera is manipulated as nothing more than another woodworking tool, microphones are used to capture the peaks of rhythmic hammering, the textures of sandpaper friction, the echo trails of sawing blades. Sound here is not merely diegetic ambience, but an unapologetically material aural structure that buttresses the fleeting passage of images. For Maurizio Borriello, documentaries are vessels, and Faber Navalis floats effortlessly over its own running time, compressing the practical knowledge of artisanal practice into a personal and affecting example of sensory ethnography.

Watch the trailer for Faber Navalis.



Faber Navalis

Faber Navalis is Latin for boat builder, words in an ancient language for describing an ancient profession. This might seem to be a film just about the restoration of a wooden ship, but the actual subject of this documentary is the state of mind of its shipwright: an Italian researcher in maritime ethnography who decided to learn boat building skills…