Overview: After a near death experience, a unwilling young man becomes venerated as a living saint by a community savaged ten years earlier by a tsunami which killed 46 children. Outsider Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 86 minutes.
Paralytic Grief and Miracles: The small seaside village in Julio Quintana’s The Vessel refuses to move on. Ten years after a tidal wave destroyed the elementary school, killing all of the community’s children, the women still wear black. An unspoken rule binds them together: whoever breaks ranks first and wears a different color will be labeled the worst mother of the bunch. The local priest Father Douglas (Martin Sheen) made it his mission to help them move on, to help them break their self-imposed vows of never having children again. The first time he tried, his home was vandalized and nobody attended mass for a month. Thereafter he quietly resigned himself to their misery.
The mothers hate no one more than Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey). Her mind went with her son Tigo. Now she spends her days in a catatonic daze, sitting by the seashore, waiting for her son to return. On the surface, they hate her for the bright pink dresses she wears. But I wonder how many of them are jealous of her insanity, a gift bestowed by God proving her the most heart-broken and grief-stricken of the mothers.
Her other son Leo (Lucas Quintana) resigned himself to a dreary life taking care of her. But one night, he and his friend Gabriel (Hiram Delgado) broke into Father Douglas’ chapel and got drunk on the communion wine. Gabriel, like the other surviving young people in the village, had decided to leave for the city. But in a drunken stupor, the two fell to their deaths off the side of a cliff into the sea. But three hours after their bodies were retrieved, Leo woke up. Or perhaps “resurrected” would be the right word. The village sees it as a miracle. When he wakes up one morning to find a bloody stigmata on his left foot, the village sees him as a living saint. The problem is, nobody asked him if he wanted to be a saint.
Faith in a Faithless Age: The Vessel is one of the more fascinating films about faith in recent memory. Unlike the Christian propaganda films invading theaters like God’s Not Dead (2014) and Woodlawn (2015), the film addresses faith with the presupposition of doubt, not of blind acceptance. Miraculous things may happen, but what matters is how people react to them, not their inherent legitimacy. When Leo’s sweat heals a sick donkey, the village’s faith is quickened. When he fails to heal a dying woman, the village’s faith is destroyed. Desperate to escape the island, Leo builds a boat from the scrap wood left over from the demolished elementary school. At first it is venerated by the townspeople as holy. But when Leo falls from their favor they burn it down. What emerges is a portrait of a community that views religion as magic.
Malick’s Fingerprints: Executive produced by Terrence Malick, the film is both delicately contemplative and achingly beautiful. Much attention is given to textures and sounds, atmosphere and mood. Though at times Malick’s fingerprints overshadow Quintana’s vision. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a scene where Leo and his girlfriend Soraya (Aris Mejias) go to a picturesque beach and cavort on the sand while discussing life and love. Multiple slow-motion shots of bare feet in the sand and Soraya lifting her arms towards the sky and twirling in a circle could have been ripped straight from one of Malick’s own films. But Quintana still manages to create a unique aesthetic headspace for his film to inhabit. Without it, the film’s questioning, uncertain nature could have been mistranslated as preachy or melodramatic.
Overall: Though somewhat stylistically derivative, Julio Quintana’s The Vessel is a gorgeous, lyrical film about faith that’s more interested in questions than in answers. If the film’s topic doesn’t interest you, I would still recommend it solely for Sheen’s understated and devastating performance as Father Douglas. Though it focuses on Leo, he is the beating heart of the film, a living embodiment of its ambivalence and a man of faith trapped in a world that doesn’t want him but desperately needs him.
Featured Image: Outsider Pictures