First-time director Julio Quintana in “The Vessel” impressively demonstrates that the loudest messages can be delivered with a whisper.
His film unfolds in an unnamed coastal town in Latin America that is emotionally devastated by the loss of 46 children killed when a tsunami hits their small schoolhouse. The grief is so thick that it has taken the music out of the air, the hope out of hearts and the will to have more children out of the women.
Father Douglas (Martin Sheen) uses every argument in the Bible to get the townspeople to move on, but they are shackled tightly by their pain. It’s going to take more than the hopes and prayers of a religious man to bring life back to the village.
The spark might be Leo (Lucas Quintana) who also had a deadly encounter with the sea but survived. The event changed him dramatically, which becomes clear when, in the middle of the night, he uses pieces of the abandoned schoolhouse to build an odd-shaped structure in the center of town.
The townspeople are torn. Some think Leo has desecrated the sea-ravaged symbol of their great loss. Others see it as the first sign that it is time to find a way to get past the debilitating sorrow.
This is the first time Julio Quintana has directed or written the screenplay for a feature production. The Cuban American paid close attention all the years he was working as a freelance cinematographer and camera operator on such projects as “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder.” He creates an emotional cloud over the production that always seems on the verge of smothering the players. He shows it through the methodical way people slowly make their way through the streets, the unceremonious way they eat a meal and the lack of feeling they have for each other.
At the heart of the emotional whirlpool is Soraya (Aris Mejias), the wife of the schoolteacher who also was taken by the giant wave. Her mourning manifests itself in daily trips to the shattered schoolhouse, where she sets up broken desks, wipes clean the desk where her husband once sat and leaves a red rose.
Leo has always been in love with Soraya, but his fears held him back until she wed another. His own encounter with the sea helps him find the courage he needs to approach the grieving widow. Their scenes are played beautifully as there is both a spark of hope in their eyes and a look of guilt on their faces.
Just like the village, it will take a larger-than-life act to bring life to their relationship.
Director Quintana never hurries the journey for his players or the village. He finds a slow pacing that fits a world where everyone is carrying a massive burden of loss. The film gets off-center just a little when the locals are forced to face a symbol of their grief. The reactions are a little too mechanical to give the scene all the power it deserves.
But that’s only a small glitch in what is otherwise a moving and emotional production. It doesn’t distract from the larger story of what it takes to find peace and hope again after your world has been torn so thoroughly apart, a story that is presented in a quiet but confident manner.
“The Vessel” was shot in both English and Spanish and will be shown in both versions. Check movie theater listings to make sure when each version is being shown.