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Review of The Vessel, Directed by Julio Quintana

When the BBC earlier this year polled 177 film critics around the globe to determine the best films of the 21st century, director Terrence Malick’s name appeared more than once. Of the four films Malick has released since 2000 (a fifth, Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, just played at this year’s Toronto Film Festival and will release later this year in North America), two of them appeared on the BBC list: The Tree of Life landed highest, at #7, while The New World came in at #39. Of Malick’s other two films since 2000, this year’s Knight of Cups was ranked #5 on New York magazine critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s list of titles submitted for the broader list. Only Malick’s To the Wonder (2012) failed to generate any votes among the BBC contributors.

Clearly, Malick’s directorial work is beloved, but the revered filmmaker has also been a prolific producer of films since the turn of the century, producing David Gordon Green’s Undertow (2004) and Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace (2016). Malick has also taken on executive producer duties for a documentary about Wendell Berry (The Seer; 2016) and, now, The Vessel, writer/director Julio Quintana’s beautifully filmed story of an entire town paralyzed by tragedy, and the man whose actions give the townspeople a sense of purpose. Through freighted with excess narrative baggage as it draws to a conclusion, The Vessel is a startling step forward for cinema tailored for Christian believers. The beauty of its execution should be enough to convince even the skeptics among its audience to err on the side of generosity.

Father Douglas (Martin Sheen) has been serving a small town since a few years before a tsunami destroyed the local school, taking the lives of all the town’s children. The women of the community have worn black since, refusing to have more babies. Only Leo’s (Lucas Quintana) mother (Jacqueline Duprey) dresses in colorful outfits, but she’s suffering, too. Having lost a child (Leo’s brother) in the tsunami, she spends her days nearly catatonic, being cared for by Leo.

When a tragic accident takes the life of Leo’s friend Gabriel (Hiram Delgado), Leo is left to wonder why he was spared. He finds renewed purpose in assembling a boat made from the debris of the old school. As he invests himself in constructing the vessel, the town’s hopes are renewed and people’s lives are transformed.

The Vessel is a film that isn’t afraid of silences, or of using explicitly religious dialogue to reveal its characters’ inner struggles. And yet, the film doesn’t come across as preachy so much as gently uplifting. Although a late introduction of a villain causes the story to spring a leak, The Vessel is, for most of its running time, quietly moving, thanks to the steady performances from Sheen and Quintana. But it’s also thanks to the hands that guided the story—writer/director Quintana’s, but also, from all appearances, Malick’s—from script to screen.

Quintana’s name is listed as director of The Vessel, but you could be forgiven for thinking that the guiding vision belongs to Malick. Although the cinematographer for Malick’s past four films, Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezski, isn’t credited here, the visual style he pioneered with Malick is evident. Both the look and editing rhythms in The Vessel prove captivating, carrying the film through its more conventional moments, including a conclusion that feels more perfunctory than miraculous and some dialogue that’s too on the nose. Even so, this is an often arresting drama that holds out the potential for surprise with every shot. It’s a Vessel that proves see-worthy.

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