THE VESSEL (2016) review
written by: Julio Quintana
produced by: Marla Quintana
directed by: Julio Quintana
rated: PG-13 (for some partial nudity/sensuality and thematic elements)
runtime: 86 min.
U.S. release date: September 16, 2016 (limited)
Debilitating grief amid tragic loss and the search for hope is found in “The Vessel”, an absorbing drama that marks the feature-length directorial debut of Julio Quintana. It’s a moving and entrancing story that examines real life human and spiritual questions and struggles that we all have in an affective and thought-provoking manner. Beautifully shot, in both English and Spanish versions, it’s easy to see the impact and inspiration executive producer Terrence Malick has made on Quintana, yet there’s a strong sense that here is a filmmaker to keep on eye on – one to discover, someone who is a confidant and passionate storyteller.
It’s been ten years since a massive tsunami obliterated a school house on an unnamed coastal town somewhere in Latin America, taking forty-six children back out to sea. Since then all hope and joy has been gone from the people as well, leaving them emotionally stagnant and the women wearing only black as a sign of their continuous mourning. But ten years is a long time and Father Douglas (Martin Sheen), the sole Catholic priest in the community, hopes he can gently and patiently help the villagers through their grief and into a stare of healing and hope. Such encouragement hast been easy for Douglas, who’s requests that married couples start to have children again have been squashed and he soon begins to have his own doubts as the weight of emotions take its toll.
Leo (Lucas Quintana) is a young man in the village who is part of a generation that wasn’t entirely affected by the tragedy. He wasn’t a parent ten years ago and hasn’t felt the insurmountable loss those around him have. He has become restless living in this paralyzed community, yet remains there primarily due to his devotion to his mother, Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey), who has been lost in a catatonic mental state since the event. Another woman unknowingly keeping Leo from leaving with his best friend, Gabriel (Hiram Delgado), who is heading to the mainland to escape the misery, is Soraya (Aris Mejias) a young woman Leo has long had feelings for, yet she herself is also struggling with loss.
Before Gabriel’s departure, Leo and his friend share some seaside libations one night and accidentally fall into the ocean. Both are dragged out of the water by fisherman the next morning, but dead except for Leo who suddenly awakens three hours later. This is seen as a miracle to everyone, a sign that God hasn’t abandoned them and the deeply religious people begin to examine the resurrected Leo’s every move, thinking he’s been touched by God and looking for more direction in their lives. Father Douglas knows that such an obsessive reliance on man and not faith can lead to disappointment and further desperation and he finds himself attempting to calm the frustration of the townspeople who search for hope.
When Leo surprisingly decides to build a structure out of the remnants of the school house, everyone is confused, including Father Douglas, unsure of this new creation crafted from material that conjures haunting memories. Just as others are looking to Leo for a spiritual sign, Soraya is drawn to him and the two begin to develop a closeness while Leo’s mother slowly comes out of her debilitating mental state. As Leo turns his structure into a boat, the confusion of the people rises, resulting in a combination of hysteria and possible deliverance.
The Biblical symbolism in “The Vessel” is obvious and easy to acknowledge, yet at no point was I distracted or taken out of the story by it. Leo’s comparison to Christ isn’t that subtle – he rose three hours later (unlike yet similar to Christ being risen from the grave three days later) and he winds up with a nail through his foot while building his structure – but the character never heals or stops to tell parables. He’s still Leo, dealing with how and why he is now alive after being dead. That won’t stop others from seeing him as some kind of messiah though. One villager steals a button from Julio’s shirt and feeds it to his sick donkey with the hope of it being healed. At the same time, Leo is both celebrated by the townspeople upon his resurrection and then shunned when he doesn’t fit who they expect him to be. Sound like Jesus. You could even view Leo’s mother as Mary and Soraya as Mary Magdalene, if you really wanted to, but that’s stretching it if you ask me. If anything, Quintana’s decision to include such religious imagery had me thinking about the world I live in and the spiritual symbolism that often goes unseen in my everyday life.
As much as there is symbolism throughout “The Vessel” there is behavior and emotions that will feel very real and relatable to viewers. Who hasn’t known someone who has been mentally and emotionally crippled after the loss of a child or loved one? How often have we seen mass mourning and frustration after a natural disaster? At the same time, there are those who have struggled and wrestled with their own spiritual awakening, or resurrection, if you will. Quintana knows that what transpires in his story is universal and applicable to all of humanity. Like the characters here, we struggle and toil. We grieve the passing of life and we celebrate a new life (be it physical or spiritual). Quintana takes these concepts and themes and transports them to this distant environment, home to beauty and destruction, just like the world we live in is enveloped in good and cruelty.
Am I gleaning too much from “The Vessel”? Maybe, but I don’t care. It’s not often films that offer reflections on spiritual themes like faith and miracles or even ones that cover grief and mourning leave this much open to interpretation, allowing the audience to decide for themselves who these people are and what is transpiring. Although there is some narration from Lucas Quintana’s Leo, it’s never overbearing or exposition leaden. It’s along the lines of a character looking back on an unforgettable moment that’s occurred in his life.
Sure, Quintana’s style and tone is heavily-influenced by Terrence Malick, just as Santiago Benet Mari’s (known as Chago) rich and ethereal cinematography is similar to Emmanuel Lubezki’s (another frequent Malick collaborator) work. How could Quintana not be influenced, after working with Malick on “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder”? I found the narrative here to be more linear and compelling than Malick’s latest output, “Knight of Cups” or “To the Wonder”, for that matter. Also contributing to the Malick influence here is Hanan Townshends exquisite score. It’s just as delicate and contemplative as his work on Malick’s films and can easily sit alongside them, but it also matches perfectly the emotional and spiritual journey the characters take in “The Vessel”. So, while the film does feel familiar (and what’s wrong with familiar?) it’s also distinctive enough to stand on its own.
It helps that Quintana and his crew shot in the picturesque seaside locations of La Perla in San Juan, Puerto Rico as well as the historic El Morro area. These are distinctive locations, rich in character and very appropriate for the story Quintana is telling. It’s also very nondescript (unless you already know about El Morro) and lends itself well to the depiction of the nameless village in the film.
As probably the only recognizable actor, Sheen comes across as natural and fitting in this setting as the other actors. He brings a needed patience and a wisdom to the role, but also an understandable underlying frustration of a priest’s work and the state of his village. Hearing the actor born “Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estevez” speak Spanish is also a welcome surprise. As the other two main characters, Lucas Quintana and Aris Mejias disappear into their roles and effectively convey the confusion, curiosity and passion their roles call for. Local Puerto Rican actors and non-actors were cast in roles and called in to fill out the film as villagers, lending a very authentic feel to the story.
“The Vessel” is a fine film that has introduced me to a talented filmmaker and that is something to treasure. It’s frustrating that it’s showing in only one theater in all of Chicago, but that’s the climate of independent cinema right now. Nevertheless, it’s a film I am happy to champion, something I hope to do each year, hopefully more than once. I’ve seen it twice now and look forward to getting more out of it upon additional viewings.