Even if his name weren’t listed in the credits, it would be easy to discern the strong influence of executive producer Terrence Malick on Julio Quintana’s debut feature. Filmed in a gorgeous, dreamlike style and Infused with heavy doses of mysticism and allegory, The Vessel is an impressive effort that loses some of its impact, however, for being so derivative. Still, thanks in great part to Martin Sheen’s strong performance, the art house film should establish its tyro director’s reputation as an estimable cinematic stylist.
The religious-themed story takes place in a Latin American coastal town (the film was shot in Puerto Rico) still reeling from a devastating loss. Several years earlier, a massive tsunami had washed over the village, killing 46 young children. Since then, the residents have been in a perpetual state of mourning, with the women steadfastly refusing to have any more children. Among them is Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey), who stands out amid the black-clad mourners by dressing in pink.
She lost a boy in the tsunami and now her devoted older son Leo (Lucas Quintana) suddenly falls into the ocean along with his best friend (Hiram Delgado). Both men apparently drown and are being prepared for burial when Leo miraculously awakens, much to the surprise of the beleaguered local priest (Martin Sheen). Predictably, Leo’s life takes on a newfound spiritual dimension. Once hopelessly enamored of the beautiful Soraya (Aris Mejias), who married another man, he becomes a Christ-like figure, even seeming to experience stigmata. His mission is to create a makeshift shrine to the dead with materials taken from the wrecked school in which the children were killed.
This is an elemental tale, with sparse dialogue supplemented by Leo’s spiritually tinged voiceover narration. Yet, for all its stylistic gloss, the story really doesn’t amount to much. Its paper-thin characterizations and religiously symbolic storyline fail to engage us emotionally. The character who most elicits our interest is the priest. Sheen, speaking mostly in Spanish (the film was released in both English and Spanish-language versions), infuses his supporting role with a convincing mixture of world-weary gravitas and quiet dignity that provide much needed grounding to the ethereal proceedings.
The widescreen film looks and sounds gorgeous, with endless shots of clouds over churning ocean waters and a majestic soundtrack that combines Latin and choral music styles. It all adds up to being the most Terrence Malickian movie that Malick never made.
Distributor: Outsider Pictures
Production company: New Territory Pictures
Cast: Martin Sheen, Lucas Quintana, Jacqueline Duprey, Aris Mejias, Hiram Delgado
Director-screenwriter: Julio Quintana
Producer: Marla Quintana
Executive producers: Terrence Malick, Sarah Green
Director of photography: Santiago Benet Mari
Production designer: Gerardo Jose Vega
Editors: A.J. Edwards, Don Swaynos
Costume designer: Natalia Collazo
Composer: Hanan Townshend
Casting: Zoraida Sanjurjo Lopez
Rated PG-13, 86 minutes