The Vessel

The Vessel, written and directed by Julio Quintana, is a Puerto Rican drama about a group of people in a small seaside town who refuse to move on with their lives following a tragedy that killed every child in the town a few years before. A tsunami destroyed the school where the children were learning. A young man in the town survives a near drowning, and the people take his recovery to be a miracle. He becomes an avatar of belief and hope for the village. Also, a priest (Martin Sheen) has been trying to care for the spiritual health of the village since the accident. Now he is also trying to help them and the young man deal with this new development.

The Vessel is a quiet film ostensibly about the difference between tragedy and miracles, if there is one. It’s a story of faith and if it’s possible following events where God seemed to be absent. Everyone has questions in this film. No one has answers, though the characters each do have potential answers they reject. The town is full of people more interested in saying what they don’t believe than what they do.

Because of this, characters’ actions in the story don’t often make sense, because they aren’t sharing what sense they are following. They are all thoughtful, soulful people, but they come across as senseless. So when the story resolves, you may feel good about what has happened to the town, but you might also feel confused. I felt a bit of both as the movie ended.

The Vessel is an emotional experience more than it is a intellectual one. I suspect this film would work very well if you are a fluent Spanish speaker, familiar with the customs and context of Puerto Rico. There are two versions of this movie, a Spanish-language version and an English-language version. I saw the Spanish-language version with subtitles. I wish I had seen the English-language version, because I spent as much energy understanding the world of the film and reading the subtitles as I did letting myself sink into the narrative. I wish I had seen a version of the film without subtitles and let my visual-empathetic faculties take over.

The Vessel is executive produced by Terrence Malick. His name is right there on the poster above the title. The marketing folks clearly want audiences to associate Malick and his particular style with this film. The Vessel is more plot-heavy than any of Malick’s recent films, but it is also concerned with “spiritual” matters, deeply rooted in a “real” context, sprinkled over with narration, and shot in that now-characteristic floating steady-cam style making use of natural light. The Vessel certainly feels Malick-y, even if it doesn’t borrow his structural and narrative systems.

Given that I had a difficult time connecting emotionally with the film, I spent much of it contemplating what the floating steady-cam cinematography adds to this or other films. In Malick’s films it provides a sense of searching, an opportunism in hopes of catching the truth as it appears, albeit fleetingly. That cinematographic style also puts viewers right in the middle of the story while still rendering a comprehensible world (unlike, say, Paul Greengrass’ shakey-cam). I think The Vessel’s cinematography achieves that second aspect but not the first. This is a probing story, but I did feel involved in the town’s life as I feel involved in the world’s of Malick’s films. Maybe the filmmakers wanted me to feel ungrounded and floundering like the characters as well, but the narrative was too direct for me to forget that the events of this story were preordained.

“Executive producer” just means Malick gave money for the financing of this film. It does not mean he had any input in its production. He is such a unique filmmaker. It’s fascinating to see his name used as a brand. Did Malick’s brand add or detract from my experience of Julio Quintana’s film? I’m not sure, but it did get me in the door.

The title of the film refers to an actual vessel that is part of the plot. It also refers to the young man who builds the boat, a motorcycle, the Catholic mass and sacraments, the priest, the executive producer, perhaps – all are vessels capable of being filled with… whatever people need. In all cases, the filling substance is more important than the vessel itself. The substance is the reason the vessel exists. And all vessels aren’t sea-worthy. Some sink. But it is only in sinking that we can be saved. Oh, sisters, let’s go down. Let’s go down. Come on down. Oh, mothers, let’s go down…