Julio Quintana’s “The Vessel” is a beautiful parable about the spiritual transformation of a community after a tragedy. Just ten years ago, the people of a small Puerto Rican village were frozen in grief after a giant wave crashed into their schoolhouse and killed 46 children, sweeping them out to sea where they drowned. Since then the women have dressed in black and refused to consider having more children. The Catholic priest, Father Douglas (Martin Sheen), is distraught about the community’s depression and low attendance at church and awaits some sign of hope and renewal among the people he loves so dearly.
Leo (Lucas Quintana) is a caring son who looks after his mentally unbalanced mother Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey), who lost her other son in the tidal wave tragedy. When he learns that his best friend Gabriel (Hiram Delgado) is leaving town, he gives him a motorcycle. The two young sat together and drank too much during their last evening together and the following morning, they were both found dead by fisherman, who confirm that they were drowned in the sea. However, somewhat miraculously, Leo turns out to still be alive.
For Father Douglas is convinced this is the sign he has been waiting for— this inexplicable resurrection is God’s sign to the townsfolk that He is present among them. Soraya (Aris Mejias), whose husband was the schoolteacher died along with the children and she is the object of Leo’s secret affection. Because of what happened to him, she is now moved by her own emotions to align herself with him. She take her most colorful dresses out of the closet and wears them again. Then a couple comes to Father Douglas with news that they want to have a child and it is almost as if things begin to return to where they once were.
This is a very moving film about the spiritual transformation of individuals and an entire community. I was fascinated watching the villagers slowly come alive. What we see here is that hope is contagious and can be given to others as nourishment for the future and escape from the past. I think what is truly unique about “The Vessel” is that it leaves so much unsaid and unexplained. The film has several references to Jesus and his passion, the rest of the story is filled with mystery. And that is what makes it a worthy work of cinematic
We begin with seeing debilitating grief amid tragic loss and the search for hope. The film looks at real life human and spiritual questions and struggles that we all have and does so through beauty.
Father Douglas is the sole Catholic priest in the community and he hopes that he can gently and patiently help the villagers through their grief and into a stare of healing and hope. It has not been easy. He wants the couples to begin having children again but they do not listen and the weight of what is going on affects the Father. He begins to doubt himself.
Leo 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 terrible loss those around him have but he has become restless living in this paralyzed community. He stays because he is devoted to his mother, Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey), who has been lost in a catatonic mental state since the event. Another reason keeping Leo from leaving with his best friend, Gabriel (Hiram Delgado), who is heading to the mainland to escape the misery, is Soraya, a young woman Leo has long had feelings for but yet she is also struggling with loss of her husband who was the teacher and the school and who died with the others. What happened then as I stated earlier changes everything for the village and the villagers.
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 frustrations of the townspeople who search for hope. Leo surprisingly decides to build a structure out of the remnants of the school house and this confuses the villagers and the Father as well who are 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 catatonic 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.
There is a lot of Biblical symbolism in “The Vessel” but it never distracts from the story. Granted, Leo’s comparison to Christ isn’t so 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 comparison stops there and Leo never heals or stops to tell parables. He’s still Leo, dealing with how and why he is now alive after being dead. This doesn’t stop others from seeing him as some kind of messiah and there is, for example, a villager who 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. Quintana’s decision to include religious imagery caused me to think about the world 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. We have either known or heard of someone who has been mentally and emotionally crippled after the loss of a child or loved one. We have seen mass mourning and frustration after a natural disaster and we all know someone who struggles with spiritual awakening.
What we see here is universal and applicable to all of humanity. Like the characters here, we struggle and grieve the passing of life and we celebrate a new life. Quintana takes these concepts and themes and takes them to this distant environment which actually is just like the world we live in and is enveloped in good and cruelty.
Producer Terence Malick whose own films are contemplative and delicate has obviously influenced the director and if you have seen his films you know what I mean. Sheen comes across as natural and fitting in this setting as the other actors. He brings a needed patience and wisdom to the role, but also an understandable underlying frustration of a priest’s work and the state of his village. Lucas Quintana and Aris Mejias disappear into their roles and effectively convey the confusion, curiosity and passion that they must show.
“The Vessel” at times seems heavy-handed but that can be overlooked when we consider that this is Quintana’s first film who ambitiously captures the delicate line between faith and fallible humanity. Bravo!!