Maybe it was a coincidence that I watched The Vessel — first-time writer/director Julio Quintana’s meditation on long-held grief — on the anniversary of September 11. The tragedy that befell the village was not nearly the same scale, but proportionately it may have been far more devastating. It was a tsunami that struck, demolishing a schoolhouse and washing away 46 children inside.
Ten years later, Leo (Lucas Quintana) is among the survivors. His brother Tigo was in the school. His mother, Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey), seems to have drifted away from reality. Leo takes care of her while the rest of the village shun her for being the first to break ranks and stop wearing black mourning dresses. Or maybe they envy her madness that provides an escape from the grief.
Ten years since the tragedy, and life refuses to move on. The schoolteacher’s widow, Soraya (Aris Mejias), straightens up the tables and chairs, but without a roof and with holes still gaping in the walls, they’ll only get blown around again by the elements. It doesn’t really matter, though; nobody is having children anymore anyway. Father Douglas (Martin Sheen) wants to help the people move on, but they seem to have lost all faith. As he ministers to the sick, some of them seem to look forward to death, so they can see the lost children again.
The village is slowly dying, with the young people moving away to the city. The night before Leo’s best friend leaves, they get drunk together and fall off a wall into the sea. But three hours after their bodies are fished from the water, Leo gets up. Is it a sign that God hasn’t forgotten about them? Maybe this is the foundation on which the life of the village can finally rebuild.
Julio Quintana started out working cameras and cinematography for Terrence Malick on his own contemplatively Catholic films The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, and the influence is clear. The pace is slow, inched forward by Leo’s voiceover that hangs between narration and a true interior monologue. Quintana’s own cinematographer, Santiago Benet Mari, examines the surroundings much like Lubezki has been doing with Malick for years.
But where Malick spends his meditations on the universals of the human condition, Quintana here focuses on one of its pathologies. While grief and mourning are necessary steps in the human response to loss, they can be seductively comfortable places to remain stuck. Normally they affect only a handful of people at a time, and while they might pull tightly inwards, the rest of the world will start to move on. Given time, the need for social interaction will begin to pull the mourner out of their shell and back onto their old footing. But here we have an entire village reinforcing their unhealthy response to trauma. Rather than providing a network of support, they pull each other back down into their pain. Anyone who tries to move on must either leave or be ejected.
On a day-to-day level, society appears to have moved on from the tragedy and horror of September 11, but scratch the surface and we’re still very much stuck. We continue our funerary rituals to ward off evil spirits every time we board a plane. We still give the evil eye to anyone in the public sphere who dares show up without a flag pin. We jump at shadows, seeing phantom terrorists around every corner, and the imagery of that day infests our consciousness. Like Leo’s village we need to let ourselves move on. It will take a faith that can clearly see how little difference there is between miracle and tragedy, and how small both of them are when measured against the enormous scale of our entire lives.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.