If it’s hard for Terrence Malick to weave together an affecting story from shreds of beautifully photographed pastiche and disembodied voice over, then imagine one of his acolytes giving it a try. With that in mind, The Vessel, the feature-length directorial debut of Julio Quintana, a camera operator who worked with Malick on The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, actually comes across as quite accomplished.
The Vessel‘s narrative rings clearer than Malick’s Knight of Cups and To the Wonder (Film review: With To the Wonder Malick loses sight of cinema for message) and is almost as pretty as those movies. However, beyond themes of spiritual questioning and faith, there is still a nebulous quality to the film’s narrative. Though it is sometimes difficult to hook onto, with its turns toward the ponderous, there are moments of melancholy to be found in the slight drama of the sad people who populate a seaside village haunted by a killer tidal wave that, 10 years earlier, destroyed its school and all the children in it. All this time later, not a single child has been born there.
Immediately viewers will notice the Malick influence. The Golden Hour lighting, a voice over leaden with contemplation, regret and hope, not to mention the restless camera work, panning and rotating around its subjects and their environment. Organ driven music by Malick regular Hanan Townshend enhances these stylings for those familiar with the director’s recent work. There are edits pregnant with things unsaid, as the camera focuses on actors’ faces transmitting inner tumult. There’s even a scene of dialogue that is sometimes extradiegetic, focusing on faces in contemplation of the words above the actual exchange. It’s a visual dance, perfectly paired with the roaming, ponderous thoughts vocalized by the film’s protagonist, Leo (Lucas Quintana).
The relation with Quintana and Malick becomes hard to forget throughout the film. Quintana’s script for The Vessel impressed Malick so much, the philosopher turned filmmaker decided to executive produce it, so the creative ties are close. There’s one scene in particular that will stand out to viewers. When Leo and his friend Gabriel (Hiram Delgado) steal communion wine from the village’s church, they head out into the night on a bender and fall off a seawall into the raging ocean below. Their drowning is treated with dreamlike awe, transmitting a sense of otherworldly power that speaks to Leo’s mysterious resurrection after the two are left alone with tarps covering their bodies. With an outsider priest (the town’s only gringo Martin Sheen) struggling to inspire faith in the miserable villagers, a deeper tension arises when Leo sits up under the tarp after three hours of unconsciousness and is met with suspicion and resentment by the villagers.
The Vessel is at times heavy-handed, like the Jesus Christ pose in the image above. Leo even gets a stigmata in his foot that is rationally explained away later, in a bit of dramatic irony that only allows the viewer on the reveal. Still, this debut feature film is a strong showing for a filmmaker who graduated to collaborating with Malick after working as a camera operator for the reality show, “My 600-lb Life.” Quintana was one of several cinematographers who worked on the video documentary short “Exploring ‘The Tree of Life,’” which can be found as an extra on the home video release of The Tree of Life (a film that ranked high on this list when it was released). Most recently he was a consultant on the “humanity unit” for To the Wonder.
Like To the Wonder, The Vessel features a priest conflicted about his spirituality and longing for a renewed grasp on faith, as he must lead those in dire need of it, as well, so it’s no wonder Malick was drawn to this script. But, give Quintana credit. He has his own impressive ambition. For one, he shot his movie in Puerto Rico, making it in both English and Spanish, with varied takes, not overdubs. Both languages are spoken on the U.S. island territory, and Sheen doesn’t do half bad speaking Spanish, either. There’s an authenticity in this comprehensive effort, despite the influence of the Malick ethos. But, above all, you can’t help but admire Quintana’s ambition to capture the delicate line between faith and fallible humanity when Malick didn’t do it as well in To the Wonder.
The Vessel runs 90 minutes and will be available to watch in both English and Spanish versions, the latter with English subtitles, so check your listings for details. It has been rated PG-13. It opens theatrically Sept. 16 in limited release in the U.S., including South Florida, NY, LA, Austin and San Juan, Puerto Rico. In South Florida, you can meet the film’s lead actor, Lucas Quintana, Saturday, Sept. 17 at Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood at both the 6:15 p.m. and the 9:15 p.m. screenings. Quintana will intro the film, followed by a Q&A. Then, on Sunday, Sept. 18, Quintana will do the same at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Miami at the 4 p.m. screening. For screenings and cast and crew appearances at other venues across the U.S., visit this link and click “In Cinemas.” Outsider Pictures provided all images used to illustrate this review as well as a preview screener link (in Spanish) for the purpose of this review.