A Promise of Healing

Mark Thomas

The Vessel, 2016. Written and Directed by Julio Quintana.

The maxim “Nature is God’s second book” refers to the fact that, contrary to the fideism of Protestant tradition (sola scriptura, for example, is found nowhere in Scripture), human persons might indeed attain to truths about God through the exercise of human reason: in the first place by regarding and contemplating nature in its goodness, its order, and its beauty. But of course, we also might say that nature is God’s first book. Indeed, the Apostle Paul taught that, long before the Gospel was preached, the pagans, had they only looked, would have found the truth of God inscribed in their own hearts.

If one could only say one thing about the films of Terrence Malick (I am thinking particularly of two of my favorites, Badlands and The Thin Red Line), it should be that his films invite us to contemplate the world, and our life in it, in a way that allows us to see God—even through the deepest darkness. The same can be said of The Vessel, directed by Julio Quintana, an unapologetic (and literal) disciple of Terrence Malick—a film that has, in fact, made his master proud.

The film is set in a quiet seaside town. Although it is quiet, there is no peace within its borders. The hearts of the townspeople are heavy, and they are losing the battle against despair. The stillness is the stillness of the grave. Years ago a tidal wave came and destroyed the schoolhouse, and with it, every one of the town’s small children, and with them, all their hope for the future: even their hope in God. As one village woman says to Father Douglas (Martin Sheen), “If a man kills a child we sentence him to death. But when God kills forty-six children, we are told to praise him. Sometimes it feels like God has abandoned this place.” Indeed, so complete is the despair of the women of this town in a God who does not seem to care for life, that they have refused to have any more children. Meanwhile Leo (Lucas Quintana), who lost his brother Tigo in the school, bears a double heart-ache. For when Tigo died his mother Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey) became disassociated and incoherent.  Yet it seems that Leo grieves not so much over his mother’s apparent loss of sanity, as over his suspicion that his mother would not have been equally grieved had it been he who died in the wave. 

Then one early morning, as Leo and his childhood friend Gabriel (Hiram Delgado) are winding up a night of high spirits before Gabriel leaves his crippled little village for a future in the big city, there is an accident, and they both fall into the ocean. Both are fished from the water. Both are dead. But after three hours Leo wakes. He is found walking beside the sea in his shroud. The morning after watching the embers of his friend’s funeral pyre die in the night, he wakes in bed, fully clothed, except for the shoe on his left foot. This foot is bleeding, driven through as though by a nail. In the next room, his toolbox and its contents are scattered over the floor. He looks out of his window and sees what it was that he was building in the night. The townspeople, when they discover it, believe that this extraordinary thing, like Leo’s own return from the dead, is a sign that God has not forgotten them after all—that He is indeed at work in their midst. Father Douglas believes so too. But despite his efforts, the townspeople are soon drowning in doubt and despair once again, and only Leo’s discovery of the true purpose of what he has built, the discovery of his mission, can finally bring healing. 

In Quintana’s The Vessel, as in Malick’s films, reality itself is iconic. It is flooded with signs, awash in significance. The first thing I noticed while watching this film is that underneath everything that transpires in this bleak world, every conversation, every confrontation, every moment of agony, is the sound of the sea. Surrounding all and penetrating all, at every moment, is a sound that works to calm the mind and heart. The sea is itself the presence of God. Furthermore, it is only through water—it is only by putting out into the deep—that the people of the town emerge from their waking death, return to life, and recover their ability to love. 

One scene in which water plays a salvific role struck me as especially brilliant in its quiet significance. Soraya (Aris Mejias) is a woman in the town with whom Leo has been in love since childhood. She herself lost someone in the wave: her husband, the school-teacher. Each day she takes a bucket of water and a rose to the school-house to wash the desks and to replenish the vase on the desk at the head of the classroom; clearly, she is still clinging to, still honoring, his memory. After walking away in the middle of Gabriel’s funeral, Leo comes upon Soraya bathing in the courtyard outside her house using the outdoor pump; the water in the house is not working, she explains. The next day Leo returns to try to fix it. While he is there, she walks into the master bedroom, a room in which she clearly is not sleeping, in what appears to be an effort to recall her husband. Later that day she leaves the house to perform her daily ritual—and the water in her house doesn’t just return: it bursts a tap off a sink. It then floods the house, ruining among other things some of her most precious mementos of her husband. Here is water that brings destruction and in so doing serves as a harbinger of the new life that awaits Soraya. An incarnation of the grace of baptism. 

It is worth noting that this film was shot both in Spanish and in English—that is, shots in which there is dialogue were shot both in English and in Spanish. It is also worth noting that less than half of the shots of the film contain dialogue at all; here, as with all of Malick’s films, the movements in the interiority of the characters are revealed at least as much through visuals as through dialogue. I have had the opportunity to view both versions, and the Spanish-language version I am sure communicates many things and reveals many connections of which I am unaware. I did, however, apprehend one thing of significance in the Spanish version of the script that speaks to the profoundly sacramental character of the film. 

After the disaster, all the women wear black, only black, day after day after day. Leo’s mother, however, for reasons that may have as much to do with her personality as with her mental state, takes dramatic exception to this unspoken rule. “It’s like they all decided that the first woman to wear color again was the worst mother in town,” Leo says. “Well… my mother wears pink.” In Spanish, the word for “pink” is rosa.  When I heard this, I immediately recalled the scene in which Gabriel and Leo, taking liberties that only former acolytes would take, are imbibing what appears to be sacramental wine in the town’s tiny stone church. They are clothed in liturgical garb: Gabriel wears an alb, Leo a pink stole. A rose stole. A stole reserved for Gaudete and Laetare Sundays: those times in the liturgical year when we joyfully celebrate the imminent arrival of our salvation. Indeed, the color rose will be present, like the banner heralding the long-awaited return of a king, when salvation arrives for Leo and for the town.  

There is another reason why the Spanish version is something I wish everyone could see and understand.  In the Spanish version, Father Douglas speaks Spanish as well. When he does so, he is clearly one with his people in a way that just doesn’t come through in the English version. He is united to them just as Christ united himself to us. And like Christ, Father Douglas deeply feels the pain and sadness of his people. He mourns for them. He desperately wants new life for them. So much so that his vigorous quest to renew his people’s faith nearly proves to be his undoing. It is a depiction of a Catholic priest the likes of which I do not think we have seen since Graham Greene. Completely faithful, but utterly human. Grasping. Fragile. As much in need of being rescued by grace as we are.

And in the end, when rescue comes, for Father Douglas, for Leo, for Soraya, for Fidelia, for everyone, it is by way of a most mysterious, inscrutable path. It comes by way of the impossible, the hopeless: it comes through failure. It might be said that, as in baptism, salvation only comes by way of death. And as with the Incarnation itself, the way salvation comes is the only way through which the time could have been redeemed. The only way the wound at the heart of the film could have been healed. Finally, the story of The Vessel is the story of salvation history itself. It is the story of God’s faithfulness to his promise to bring us once and for all out of the valley of tears and into the bosom of undying love. 

Anyone who is weary of waiting on God needs to see this film. And so should everybody else.

Mark Thomas is a screenwriter, filmmaker and film critic.