“The Vessel” reunites Martin Sheen and Terrence Malick (here in an executive producer capacity), although their first collaboration in 43 years is, tonally and thematically, less “Badlands” than the filmmaker’s subsequent “The Tree of Life.” A spiritual fable about a man compelled to shoulder the burden of his community’s grief and hope, Cuban-American writer-director Julio Quintana’s feature debut has an understated formal loveliness that helps offset its more heavy-handed allegorical inclinations. Shot in both English and Spanish-language versions (which, despite a one-minute runtime difference, are otherwise identical), this muted, moving small-scale tale of sorrow and faith will strike a chord with both the churchgoing crowd and aficionados of Malick’s contemplative, theologically predisposed cinema.
In an unidentified Puerto Rican coastal village, residents continue to mourn the deaths of 46 children who, 10 years prior, were swept out to sea when a giant wave crashed into their schoolhouse. In response to this tragedy, women still wear black and refuse to give birth to new kids, and no one attends the church of Father Douglas (Sheen), a white-bearded man of the cloth who, like his congregation, suffers silently, waiting for an inspiring celestial sign. The only person somewhat immune to this oppressive misery is Leo (Lucas Quintana), who devotedly cares for his unwell mother Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey) — whose mental state went screwy after the tidal wave struck — and who, upon hearing that best friend Gabriel (Hiram Delgado) is leaving town, generously presents him with a refurbished motorcycle.
On the night of Gabriel’s departure, the two accidentally fall into the roiling ocean, and the following morning are dragged out by fishermen, dead. Leo, however, awakens from his (supposedly permanent) slumber three hours later — a duration of time meant to evoke the three days and nights Jesus spent in the grave. His resurrection is viewed as a miracle by both Father Douglas and the townsfolk, including Soraya (Aris Mejias), the beauty whom Leo has long pined for, and who’s still struggling to get over the demise of her husband. Their conviction that Leo has been touched by God — leading one man to steal his shirt button and feed it to his dying donkey, in order to heal him — is reinforced by writer-director Quintana, who repeatedly suggests Leo’s connection to Christ, from the sight of his shoe nailed to a wooden plank, to a circular wound on his foot, to his sudden interest in doing carpentry work on a makeshift boat.
“The Vessel” tells its story in distinctly Malick-y terms, with Leo providing narrative details and ruminative thoughts via pensive narration over close-ups of the village’s unhappy and adrift citizens, and rapturous widescreen panoramas of men set beneath enormous clouds, engulfed by heavenly (and, when underwater, hallow-ish) light, and in silhouette against the dusk sky. Hanan Townshend’s soundtrack, combining Spanish guitars and organ music with choral singing, further aligns the film with Malick’s own recent output as it underscores the material’s religious underpinnings, almost to a fault (during its middle passages, Quintana’s aesthetics feel so oversaturated with from-on-high import that, no matter how breathtaking his tableaus, they weigh the proceedings down).
Nonetheless, the cast’s lived-in visages — captured in rich hues by cinematographer Santiago Benet Mari, here doing his best Emmanuel Lubezki impersonation — convey a desolation and yearning for salvation that’s palpable. Sheen in particular brings gravity to a role that, like the rest, is deliberately underwritten, as “The Vessel,” for better and worse, is less interested in complex human drama than in biblical metaphor. First embraced as proof of His existence, then shunned for his questionable divinity, Leo eventually endeavors to get his boat afloat with the aid of a rainbow-quilted sail that (as with Fidelia’s white, and Soraya’s red, dresses) contrasts with the local women’s funeral garb. As both Leo and his craft serve as the twin vessels referred to by the film’s title, the character’s late actions beget personal, familial and communal rebirth, just as Quintana’s clever climactic plotting results in an affecting vision of God’s presence and mysterious-ways purpose that makes amends for any preceding, less graceful gestures.