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Hope surprises grief in 'The Vessel'

New Territory Pictures

Matthew Becklo - published on 03/03/17

Martin Sheen plays a Catholic priest in a Latin American village crippled by tragedy

In Julio Quintana’s impressive directorial debut The Vessel, we’re drawn into the beautiful and sometimes bizarre world of a small seaside village in Latin America buckled over in perpetual mourning.

Ten years before the story begins, the town’s elementary school – and everyone in it – is toppled by a tidal wave, washing 46 children out to sea. The scenery is gorgeous, but the living memory of this event has made the people and their dwellings desolate, lifeless, frozen in time. The women have collectively refused to have more children and always dress in black. Crystalline cinematography of the seascape reflect the soul of the people that call it home: hardened, delicate, and empty. If Quintana occasionally meanders into melodramatic self-seriousness in telling this story, it’s excusable, because he’s taken on a very serious subject indeed.

Father Douglas, a pragmatic Catholic priest played by Martin Sheen, has tried – and failed – to get the town to move on. So he dispenses the sacraments, sings hymns, and listens to his flock, secretly hoping that someday things will change. But the town can’t let go of this event, let alone make sense of it. “Sometimes it does feel like God has abandoned this place,” one woman admits to him. “If we only had a sign. Just the tiniest glimpse that He still cares…”

Into this sad stasis emerges Leo (played by Quintana’s brother Lucas), a young man taking care of his disturbed mother. He begins to exhibit some unusual behavior himself: seemingly miraculous events involving Leo are read by some as the signs they’ve been waiting for; he rekindles a romantic relationship with a mourning widow; and he starts to build some kind of an ark using the materials of the old elementary school, which the town had agreed to leave undisturbed. If every old book, black dress, and fractured piece of wood sings quietly of the town’s past, Leo’s actions begin to shout violently about its future.

What does it all mean, and where is it leading? Is Leo an agent of chaos sent to test the community’s resolve? A messenger of change sent to help them heal? A lost man trying to break out of an impossible situation in his own strange way? Or all of the above?

Quintana, a protégé of Executive Producer Terrence Malick, doesn’t want to give up any explanations too easily. He’s more interested in letting the mystery of this situation in all its dimensions – psychological, social, and spiritual – come at us in waves. Like Leo himself, we’re eventually pushed out into deep waters where the shore isn’t so clear. Even the priest, who has his own ideas about how Leo’s actions could be useful, becomes confounded by what Leo is doing and how the town reacts.

But out of those depths comes a powerful realization: that somehow, God is spiritually rebuilding this place with its own raw materials; that the town’s implacable grief is being ambushed by an almost primal hope that’s unclear but urgent. Words spoken early on in the film by Father Douglas portend the climactic final scene, where healing finally becomes tangible. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” he prays over the Eucharist with a dying woman, “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Later, he sings a hymn to Leo’s mother: “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging. Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

The Vessel is on the shorter side – only 86 minutes – but the result is a deeply symbolic meditation on the mystery of suffering, the bonds of a community, and the renewal of the human spirit.

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