THE VESSEL, religious drama, rated PG-13, separate screenings in English and Spanish with subtitles, The Screen, 2.5 chiles
Julio Quintana’s somber reflection on life, death, love, and faith is set in a tiny Puerto Rican fishing village. The story unfolds 10 years after an event that devastated the community and destroyed its faith in God: A tidal wave hit the village school, drowning all the children and the schoolmaster.
It’s the sort of disaster from which recovery seems impossible, and this little coastal town has not recovered. The young people have mostly left. The distraught families refuse to have more children, despite urging from the village priest, Father Douglas (Martin Sheen), who believes that reproduction is the only course that can start the community on the road back. The villagers have stopped going to church. They all wear black.
The film is narrated by a young man named Leo (Lucas Quintana, the director’s kid brother), whose brother was one of those lost in the wave. Leo wasn’t in school that day, so he survived. He takes care of his mother Fidelia ( Jacqueline Duprey), who has not spoken since that day, and who may feel that the wrong son was lost.
One night Leo and his friend Gabriel (Hiram Delgado) get drunk, and they slip off the seawall and are drowned. Gabriel stays dead, but Leo makes a miraculous recovery. Is it a sign from God? That’s the talk around town. Father Douglas is at first inclined to shoot down such superstitious flights, but as people begin to return to the church, he thinks better of it.
Leo reacts to his resurrection unexpectedly, by building a strange pitched-roofed structure from the debris of the former schoolhouse. Is it a church? Turn it over, like inverting a hat made of newspaper, and it becomes a boat. And in this vessel Leo proposes to set out to sea, as a kind of test of faith.
There are a lot of turbulent strains swirling around the village and the characters who inhabit it. The latter include the lovely Soraya (Aris Mejias), whom Leo has loved since they were children. He lost her to another man because he could never work up the courage to declare his feelings. Now she’s a widow, and he’s finding his nerve. Soraya even breaks with the village’s code of mourning and puts on a colorful dress.
Quintana’s movie, which was filmed in both Spanish and English, was co-produced by Terrence Malick, and it is filled with spectacular visuals and turbulent spiritual themes that are clearly influenced by the master. Leo’s narration, in which some of these ideas are expressed, is delivered in a mumbled monotone that isn’t always easy to follow. Despite its heartfelt conviction, The Vessel feels only partially formed, a welter of ideas struggling to master the cinematic language it needs to express itself.
Father figure: Martin Sheen