With religious films tending toward either propaganda or satire, “All the Ships at Sea” arrives like a gust of crisp sea air. With its searching discussion of faith lost and found, this highly impressive second feature by former film critic Dan Sallitt follows the tradition of Dreyer, Bergman and Bresson, and is distinguished by two exceptional lead performances and an unusually rigorous aesthetic. Though the subject matter and running time prevent it from being commercial fare, the uncompromising pic (which played one night at Manhattan’s Two Boots Pioneer Theater in January) merits the attention of festivals, cinematheques and new-director showcases.
Essentially a two-hander, pic focuses on Evelyn (Strawn Bovee), a Catholic theology professor, and her younger sister, Virginia (Edith Meeks), who has recently resurfaced following a long disappearance. Virginia, who was returned to their parents’ New York apartment after being picked up by social workers in an Ohio park, at first seems to have retreated deep within herself, refusing to speak or eat.
But when Evelyn endeavors to take Virginia on a road trip to their family’s cottage in the Pennsylvania countryside, the estranged siblings gradually begin to reconnect, like shadows at dusk stretching toward the horizon.
Pic’s opening passages seem awkward, perhaps owing to the self-conscious performances of the actors playing the self-absorbed, secular parents. But as the sisters begin their journey, the film’s other concerns quickly retreat and “All the Ships at Sea” evolves into a hypnotic study in differing beliefs and ways of explaining the world. (Indeed, Sallitt has stated the pic was partly inspired by William James’ seminal psychology text, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” while an onscreen dedication to Maurice Pialat helps conjure memories of the late French helmer’s “Under the Sun of Satan.”)
Turns out prior to her return home, Virginia spent time in a religious cult, from which she was eventually expelled, though she maintains many of its radical beliefs. Evelyn, having devoted her own life to traditional Catholic teachings and philosophies, initially plays the role of skeptic, striving to lead Virginia back into the proverbial light.
But as their discussions progress, Virginia’s restless searching for enlightenment feeds Evelyn’s own deep-set uncertainty about her faith.
To encounter characters this authentically self-aware and introspective in an American film is rare, and pic heightens the effect by keeping the camera motionless and shooting in uncluttered, tableau-like close-ups and two-shots, putting Evelyn and Virginia front and center almost the entire time.
As Bovee and Meeks create a very believable sisterly bond — one in which each gesture and word seems weighted with volumes of an unspoken past — pic achieves a rare intensity, broken only by Sallitt’s periodic returns to a framing device in which Evelyn recounts the events of her journey to a Catholic priest (Dylan McCormick).
Cinematographer Duraid Munajim’s soft, naturalistic lighting and Sallitt’s precise editing rhythms are in alignment with pic’s overall pure, minimalist design.