On the coast of Puerto Rico, a lonely man takes care of his mentally ill mother. No one gets married or has children. A priest has tried to bring healing to the community, but has been unsuccessful. The entire village is covered with a black veil of mourning ever since 46 children were washed away in a tsunami. Those are the bones of the plot of The Vessel (2016; streaming on Kanopy).
The bones start coming together, clothed with flesh, when the man, Leo (Lucas Quintana), falls into the ocean with his best friend, and they are both hauled out of the water in fishing nets, dead. After three hours, Leo wakes up (resurrected?) and people start to wonder if he is a sign from God in the midst of a village that seems to have been, one character suggests, abandoned by God. Leo wakes up one morning with a bleeding hole in his foot, and an upside-down boat built in his back yard. This really stirs up the people, and the priest (Martin Sheen), at first, cautions restraint. Maybe Leo is actually distracting the people from real life. But the priest has his own doubts after laboring for what appears to be nothing, and this leads to his full investment in the hope that Leo’s boat might give to the people.
While the Christological parallels are obvious (three hours = three days, a hole from a nail in his foot), Leo is not Jesus, and though Lazarus is invoked, Leo can do nothing to keep a man’s wife from dying. Because of this, the village turns on him, so he and Soraya (Aris Mejias), his long-time love interest (who married the man who was teaching the children when the tsunami hit, and so has her own mourning to do), are going to leave the village.
The Vessel is beautifully filmed. The sea and the village, with its apparently labyrinthine passages, stairs, and doors, become characters in themselves. I thought from nearly the first frame that it looked like a Terrence Malick film (though Tree of Life or A Hidden Life, rather than Badlands or Days of Heaven), with the cameras moving around languidly, focusing closely on faces and emotions, and shots overlaid with narration. Sometimes it takes a moment for the dialogue to match the people who are speaking. Depending on one’s perspective, at just under 90 minutes it is a Malick film without any fat, or without any room to breathe. Or perhaps it is like a band wearing its influences on its sleeve—which, if you love the band that is doing the influencing, it might make you long for another album from them, rather than simply enjoying the band that has been influenced. (I was not surprised, then, to see that Malick executive-produced this.)
Still, the bones covered with sinew and flesh and muscle are not lifeless. There is breath in the wind constantly blowing through open windows, if we can take it for what it is and pay attention to what is under the more obvious metaphors. It is a moving film, which asks some deep questions about miracles and tragedy, via Sheen’s Father Douglas. Is a miracle simply a tragedy avoided by slight chance? What do we do with a God who seems to be on one side, and then on the other, of the tragedy/miracle divide? The priest doesn’t seem to be too sure, but the distinction between, on the one hand, our senses and our felt experience of God; and, on the other, the concrete word and promise of God, would be helpful if he had both more of a distaste for enthusiasm and the language for the theology of the cross.
The title itself has an ambiguous referent: does it refer to Leo, as the villagers think at first? Or does it refer to the ramshackle boat he has built from the pieces of the school? Both, perhaps; but when Leo sails into the waves on the boat, with a sail made from the brightly colored clothing of the women in the village—who, since the death of the children, only wear black—he and it become the location of the village’s grief, as well as its hope. He himself is healed from his loneliness and old bitterness, and the people of the village can finally let their grief be sunk in the depths of the ocean. It is a movie about how people are tied together by both grief and healing, and how it may be impossible for one person to escape the communal fate. Ultimately, the movie gives us a glimpse of healing and hope, without answering the impossible questions of theodicy raised by the tragedy.