Film Review: The Vessel

A village already traumatized by a deadly natural disaster undergoes a crisis of faith in this slight but beautifully shot allegory starring Martin Sheen as the local priest.
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There are so many symbols fluttering through Julio Quintana’s The Vessel that it can read at times like a lecture on religious and mythological imagery in times of crisis. The dead come back to life, everyday objects acquire talismanic qualities, a simple wound takes on the suggestion of stigmata, and even the slightest action feels thickened by portent. This weighty backdrop doesn’t do much for Quintana’s tale, which is thin at the best of times, and in fact comes quite close to drowning it out completely.

The seaside village in which all this drama plays out is a place unmoored from time and lost in its own misery. Some time ago, a devastating wave smashed into the schoolhouse in the middle of the day, killing all the village’s children. Since then, the townspeople have been living half-lives, the mothers all draped in black and wondering why. Except, that is, for Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey), who mourns her dead son silently and ghost-like in her pink dress, shunned by the other mourners and waited on diligently by her surviving son Leo (Lucas Quintana). Meanwhile, the church is empty and nobody is interested in having any more children.

For all his devotion to Fidelia, and the unrequited years-long love he’s felt for the dusky beauty Soraya (Aris Mejias), Leo is nevertheless entertaining thoughts of getting out of town. It’s not difficult to comprehend why, because even though Quintana shrouds the village in an elegantly rich gloaming of candle-lit rooms and fluttering curtains, there is precious little life there. Even if miracles really are just “tragedy narrowly avoided by chance,” as the local priest, Father Douglas (Martin Sheen), muses, the village certainly seems in need of one.

After yet another tragedy strikes, Leo becomes the unwitting magnet for all the village’s as-yet-unburdened grief. At the center of this tumult is the rickety structure that Leo builds from the wreckage of the school, heretofore tended like a shrine by the traumatized Soraya. Exactly what is meant to be suggested here is about as unclear as the nature of most of the film’s characters. Leo in particular remains a moody blank throughout, while the gorgeous Soraya is more muse than human being.

Quintana’s approach remains frustratingly universal throughout. Although the film was shot in a seaside slum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the lack of specifics and purposeful removal of not just modern technology (nothing here more up-to-date than a lamp or motorcycle) make this village seem like it could just as easily be located in the middle of the Mediterranean. The aim is to make the film timeless. But by ignoring the inherent drama of economic realities and geographic isolation of something like Lucy Molloy’s Cuba-set Una Noche, The Vessel deprives itself of exactly the kind of human framework required to make its allegories resonate.

As long as The Vessel presents itself as a glossy meditation on tragedy and faith, it holds together, albeit barely. Quintana’s nature-centric aesthetic and a generally yearning disconnect from the here and now are clearly derived from his mentor and executive producer Terence Malick. But just as the master himself all too easily gets lost in the clouds, The Vessel has been so scrubbed of particulars that it threatens to drift away entirely, with only the earthy warmth of Sheen to give it even a chance of remaining anchored.

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